008.018

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“Well, that’s definitely the doll that I saw in Hell.”

Eva stepped away from the window, looking at the others. Irene and her succubus were standing towards the back of the stairwell. One was trying to look as small as possible while the other continually preened as soon as she thought someone was looking in her direction. Unfortunately for Saija, the doll standing out in the courtyard below was of far more interest to everyone.

Juliana and Genoa were both forward a bit more, both looking out the window. Even after her brief run around her house, Genoa wasn’t looking significantly worse off than she had during their earlier discussion. Still strained, but maybe even better. She didn’t look quite so out of breath as Eva would have expected. Getting out of the house and getting some fresh air might have done her a world of good.

Zoe rounded out their group for the moment. She wasn’t paying so much attention to the doll outside. Her focus was on her cellphone. She was coordinating with other members of Brakket staff to find any possible missing students. Saija’s warning about the recently deceased demon and how he had likely broken some part of their contract.

Given that she was looking much calmer than she had when Saija first mentioned the possibility, Eva was guessing that the headcount was going well.

Srey had gone to find out where Vektul was on Eva’s request. The demon was somewhat essential to Eva and somewhat absentminded. There needed to be some measures in place to ensure he didn’t go do something stupid.

Like run off and try to speak with the doll. For all Eva knew, the doll would strongly object to interacting. Srey had worried that any even extraordinarily minor breach in their contracts would set the doll off. Something that was only a breach because of some innocuous wording that nobody would have complained about under normal circumstances.

Eva didn’t have a contract. So she was feeling fairly safe around the doll at the moment. Neither did Arachne, but Arachne hadn’t been summoned in the usual manner. Eva wasn’t so sure how they might react if brought near each other.

Though, at the moment, Eva wasn’t sure that the doll was even alive anymore.

For the fifteen minutes Eva had been back at Brakket, and longer according to Irene, the doll hadn’t moved. No breathing, no fidgeting of the arms. The doll hadn’t even blinked, as far as she could tell.

Nobody had gone near it. Anderson had made an announcement over the Brakket speaker system warning against going outside. Genoa and Juliana, being unable to teleport long distances on their own, had to have Zoe bring them inside to avoid going too near the doll.

They might have been able to sneak in through one of the back doors, but it was best not to take any risks with someone who could apparently fall out of the sky to skewer people.

“Nobody missing,” Zoe said as she slipped her phone back into her pocket. “However, Cindy Lovechild’s roommate has been unable to wake her. Wayne took her to the school nurse.”

Saija stepped forward, making sure everybody noticed her before speaking. “If Timothy had enraptured someone in his delirium, they should recover soonish now that he’s gone.”

“How soon?”

“A day or two,” Saija said with a shrug.

“I suppose that is good. I’ll let them know,” Zoe said, pulling her phone back out. “However,” she said with a nod towards the window, “what do we do about her?”

“If she doesn’t ever move, I suppose we could put her up on a pedestal. A free new statue for the school.”

“Eva…”

“Or we could try to talk to her. She was open to speaking the last time I encountered her.”

“Alright. What do we say then? ‘Please leave?'”

“Or find out what she is sticking around for. Maybe another demon has broken its contract in the area.”

“If that is the case, perhaps we should offer our assistance.” She sighed, rubbing her forehead. “I told Anderson that his grand idea was idiotic. One of his perfectly innocent demons has already gone off the wall. When will the rest?”

“Hey,” Saija said. “I’ve got no such plans. I’m rather enjoying myself as I am. I don’t need a sword through my gut either.”

Eva turned back to the window, biting her lip. Being his school, Anderson should be the one out there speaking with the doll. He had a demon bound to him. He should know what it was.

But he was nowhere to be seen or heard of, save for the announcement he had made.

The only real reason why he might not be out there was because he broke his portion of the contract somehow. Perhaps he was worried about being dragged down to the abattoir.

Why isn’t the doll going after him then?

Maybe it was waiting for more orders from Void or the Keeper. Wherever it got its orders from.

She could speculate all she wanted. It wasn’t going to change matters until someone went down there to speak with her.

“We shouldn’t all go down at once. It might startle her,” Eva mumbled to herself.

Not quiet enough, apparently.

“You’re not going alone,” Arachne said almost instantly. “In fact, you’re not going at all. Someone else can deal with this. You don’t need to be involved in all the things that go on around this place. You’re already involved in enough.”

Eva shook her head. “You might think that, but there are enough complications around Brakket as is. It is in our best interest, and everyone else’s, to ensure that another one doesn’t crop up from this. I’d prefer if everything went as smooth as possible in the future.”

Like the ritual, she mentally added. With everyone around, she wasn’t about to speak aloud. Arachne should understand without being explicitly told.

She still wasn’t sure what to do about the ritual. They had cleared that area of the wilderness beyond the prison, but so long as the demon hunters had that replica of the nun’s ability to crack the sky, using that field was somewhat untenable. Perhaps if they had someone running an actual distraction for them. They could still be caught off-guard by a beam of light from the sky.

That wasn’t to say that the wilderness they had started on was the only possible location. The Infinite Courtyard was another possibility. It was still open to the sky, but at least it had Brakket Academy surrounding it. They could set up some sort of defenses around it.

A blood shield might work. It would have to be enormous. Larger than any Eva had ever made. She was fairly certain that she could power it through bloodstones. Provided her minion in Florida had done his job in finding suitable targets for more bloodstones, it could potentially be run indefinitely.

The only real problem with that was that she wasn’t sure how well a shield might hold up to an attack of that magnitude. Her blood shields were strong. Stronger than anything she could produce through thaumaturgy. But strong enough to withstand what was essentially a massive laser from the sky?

Eva wasn’t so sure.

The other option she had considered was somewhere indoors. Someone had set up a thaumaturgical ward that expanded what would have been a few hundred square feet into a few square miles for the Infinite Courtyard. Surely something similar could be done to a room. She wouldn’t even need a single square mile of space. So the ward could be drastically scaled down.

It would be much safer than going outside. Depending on who Eva had to get to set up the ward, the whole thing could be kept much quieter as well. No big fanfare or large crowds to find out what might be going on if people stumbled across the ritual circle. It could all be done in the privacy of one of the side rooms in the women’s ward.

She would cast the spell herself, but she had only been in her warding class for two months. Not even quite that. They hadn’t even discussed spacial expansion. What they had discussed was complex enough that Eva doubted anything useful would be covered for some time.

The teacher, Professor Chelsea Lepus, seemed the easygoing sort so long as her class wasn’t being interrupted. Eva might have to ask her.

But that would be neither here nor now.

They had a doll to deal with first.

“I’ll go,” Zoe said before Eva could open her mouth. “As a member of Brakket staff and someone who wants to ensure that the students are kept safe—safe as can be at Brakket anyway—it falls to me.”

“I’ll follow along at a distance, ready to blink in if anything goes wrong.”

“Eva…”

Eva held up a hand. “It will be great if you can shoo the doll away. Unfortunately, this is a demon thing. You’re not much of a demon.”

“Thanks. I think.”

“I’ll be there as well,” Genoa said, stepping forward.

“Mom, no. They can handle it.”

The older woman sighed, glaring down her daughter. Juliana drew herself up, unwavering under Genoa’s gaze.

“You’re staying right here,” Juliana said, voice firm.

Closing her eyes, Genoa shook her head. “You’re not supposed to be taking care of your old mom for several years. At least.”

“Then focus on recovering. You can go back to being mom after that.”

“Very well. But if something does happen–”

“If something does happen, you can cast long-range support from up here. I’ll be up here to protect you from anything that might come near.”

“If that doll comes up here, I’m running away. I’m not going anywhere near that doll,” Saija said, hands on her hips and chest puffed out with a certain amount of pride that didn’t really fit her words.

Half-hiding behind the succubus’ wings, Irene glanced down towards the ground. “Me too.”

“That’s fine,” Eva said. She hadn’t been counting on either one of them for any kind of support.

“If you do get into a fight, try not to die quite as fast as Timothy did. I mean, it was cool, but a drawn out fight would be better I think.”

Eva gave the succubus a light glare. Just a simple glare of annoyance.

That didn’t stop Saija from jumping backwards, trading places with Irene to hide behind her back.

Cowering behind a human? Eva had to stop herself from speaking aloud. It was amusing, but she just rolled her eyes in the end. Especially because saying something might just bring up the topic in everyone else’s minds. They had surely noticed how the demons acted when in Eva’s presence. It was annoying enough to deal with as it was.

“Right,” Eva said. “I’ll keep that in mind. If there is nothing else of note, let’s get moving.”

Arachne moved in front of Eva, leading the way down the stairwell. Zoe, though she was supposed to be the one speaking with the doll, was trailing behind. Her cellphone was out, typing away almost like Catherine with a deep scowl on her face.

Eva found the reason for her typing as soon as they hit the ground floor.

Wayne teleported in. He appeared entirely unannounced and just about got one of Arachne’s limbs through his throat for his troubles.

To his credit, he didn’t flinch. Though that might have just been him not noticing until Arachne had already started to draw back. Or maybe his mind was accelerated to the point where he had processed the shock of everything already.

Were Eva in his place and she saw Arachne’s leg coming straight for her, she would have moved out of the way. Just in case Arachne didn’t stop in time.

“I told you not to come,” Zoe said. “We don’t want to startle the doll into rash action. We already have more than enough people with Eva and Arachne.”

Wayne just gave a light grunt before narrowing his eyes in Eva’s direction. “We could argue. I’d win. Let’s just get this over with. I have tomorrow’s classes to prepare for.”

“Wayne–”

He turned and marched out of the the lobby ahead of everyone else, leaving no opportunity for argument.

Zoe just looked on, somewhat stunned as Wayne threw open the lobby doors and beelined towards the doll. She recovered fast enough and chased after him. Eva had to step to the side in order to avoid being trampled.

Following along behind the two of them, Eva just hoped that he wasn’t about to do something rash. Poorly thought out actions didn’t seem like the kind of thing that Wayne would do often. In fact, he was quite level-headed. But who knew what Zoe had sent him in her texts. She might have said something that would set him off.

Now that she was on ground level and fairly close to the doll, Eva could clearly see the woman. Only with her own eyes. As before, Eva couldn’t sense the slightest sensation of blood from the woman. Her silver hair framed her face. The entrance and exit of Prax’s domain had been lit, but not nearly as well as proper daylight. As such, Eva wasn’t entirely sure if she had noticed the doll’s eyes.

They were bright silver. Almost glowing.

And currently staring off into nothing. They didn’t move to track Wayne and Zoe as the two approached. They just… stared.

Neither Wayne nor Zoe spoke. They stopped about ten feet away, more at a loss of what to do than anything else. Both seemed to expect the doll to speak first. A fact made evident as Wayne cleared his throat. Loudly.

The doll didn’t react. Not even a twitch of her gloved fingers.

“Can we help you?”

Wayne shot Zoe a questioning glance out of the corner of his eye.

Zoe answered with a shrug. ‘We had to say something,’ she mouthed back.

“Perhaps,” the doll said, drawing all attention back to it. “I am locked in indecision.”

Literally, it seems, Eva thought.

She had moved her mouth, but the doll was still as a statue even after acknowledging the two professors.

“Well, we can help you come to a decision,” Zoe said. “Though I must ask before anything else, do you intend harm—physical or otherwise—to any of the humans around the area?”

“Not at this time,” the doll responded in a whisper. Her head turned slightly. While her eyes were still unfocused, Eva got the distinct impression that she was staring straight at the prison.

Eva immediately made a mental note to warn Devon that an enforcer from Hell might have an interest in him. Of course, the prison was a fair distance away. For all Eva knew, the doll was staring at something else. Maybe one of the demon hunters around town was off in that direction and had done something to displease the doll.

Still, best to err on the side of caution.

“That’s good,” Zoe said after a moment of silence. She probably didn’t like the phrasing, but would take what she could get. “Why don’t we move somewhere to sit down and discuss this then?”

Somewhere away from the children, Eva mentally added.

But the doll didn’t move. A brief moment of silence passed before she spoke. “The target of my indecision is present. I was considering tracking down my target, but that option has been removed. Until I have come to a decision, none shall move. Leaving may allow an escape.”

Up until the doll spoke, Eva had been fairly calm. With both herself and Arachne present, she was suddenly somewhat concerned.

She had several vials of blood. Both her own and Arachne’s. She could form shields and she could attack with ease. But would she be able to in time? Juliana had spoken of the doll’s speed from her experience in Hell.

In preparation, Eva uncapped one of the vials behind her back and prepared a decently sized shield. It would be up and around her in the blink of an eye.

Zoe shared a brief look with Wayne before continuing her questioning.

“What is it you’re having trouble deciding?”

“A demonic beacon was taken from Hell to the mortal realm by a demon. Multiple times. A crime worthy of five centuries imprisonment.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a problem from where I’m standing,” Wayne grumbled. “Less demons around, the better if you ask me.”

“Why don’t we not interrupt the… person,” Zoe said, clearly fumbling for words to call the doll. Facing the doll again, she said, “What is the problem anyway?”

“My information was incomplete,” she whispered. “The demon in question is not quite a demon.”

Both Zoe and Wayne turned slightly to glance in her direction while Arachne moved from ahead and to the side of Eva to directly between her and the doll. The latter let out a low growl as she bent her knees, ready to jump into action.

Eva grit her teeth, mind searching for possibilities. Unless there was another ‘not quite a demon’ running around, the doll was talking about her. But I haven’t done anything wrong. What is she talking about?

A beacon.

Her hand drifted up to brush at her throat. The only beacon she had been in contact with aside from her own—something that never left the mortal realm—had been Arachne’s. But that had been destroyed. Arachne had never used it. Void sent Arachne to Earth.

It had been around her neck nonstop before that.

Eva clenched her fists together.

Including when I sent Sawyer to Hell.

She had taken both Nel and Serena up to the mortal realm. And the beacon had gone with her both times.

“I destroyed it,” Eva said, stepping around Arachne. The blood was still floating behind her, just in case she needed to use it. For the moment, she would try to get out of this mess through words. “I realized my error and destroyed the beacon. It was never once used.”

Through her sense of blood, Eva could tell that Arachne was looking at her. Her carapace didn’t have blood flowing through it, but she was still obviously questioning Eva’s words.

Eva didn’t glance to the side in the slightest. Her focus was on the doll.

Who was now focused on her. Bright silver eyes stared straight at Eva.

“I didn’t help any demons to the mortal realm. The beacon was destroyed. So there shouldn’t be a problem regardless of my status of being only a partial demon.”

That should work. Hopefully. The logic was sound from Eva’s perspective. But would a demon—no, a doll feel the same?

“It is not my place to make such a decision. And something…” the doll’s whispering voice trailed off, staring at the sky for a moment. “Something is preventing my contact with the Keeper.”

Thank Life for that, Eva thought to herself. Had everything been working properly, Eva might have found herself on the receiving end of a sword falling from the sky. It would have come completely unnoticed, as it likely had for that Timothy demon.

“But you said that perhaps these humans might be able to assist in your decision,” Eva said, turning her stare on to Zoe.

“Right,” the professor said after clearing her throat. She shifted slightly, even less comfortable now than she had been when first approaching the doll. “Well, if no crime was committed, there shouldn’t be a punishment, right? There wasn’t even any intention in the actions.”

Still staring at the sky, the doll made no indication that she had even heard Zoe. “I need to reestablish contact.”

Eva followed her gaze up to the sky.

And noticed something.

A white crackling stood out against the blue sky, the clouds, and the violet streaks.

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008.017

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Irene stared at her phone. She had been all worried for Eva and yet Eva just hung up like it was nothing. With a joke about succubi, no less.

“Last time I worry about her.”

“See,” Saija said with a wide grin, “I told you it was nothing.”

“Well, not nothing. She said it was some doll that she knew. Doll,” Irene scoffed. “And she has the gall to tease me about…” she trailed off with a slight cough. There was no need to mention what Eva had been teasing her about in front of Saija. Who knew how the succubus might react. It would be just her luck for Saija to take the teasing as a challenge.

She might be alright to talk to while Drew and her other followers were gone, but she did not need anything more than talking.

Especially with the way Saija had followed her up to her room when she ran to collect her cellphone. Shelby wasn’t in at the moment, leaving the two of them all alone.

Though, now that she was glancing up at Saija, she realized that the succubus had gone very still.

“Saija?”

She jumped, causing a few creaks in the third and normally unoccupied bed. “Sorry,” she said. “A doll, was it?”

“Eva mumbled something about a doll. Maybe I misheard. Droll? How droll? Does that make sense? It was very quiet.”

“Doll makes more sense,” she said, standing. “I should go and make sure the others know a doll is out of Hell.”

Irene blinked, watching in confusion as Saija walked to the door and left the dorm room. She considered letting the demon go. Something was obviously up. Likely nothing she wanted anything to do with.

She stood anyway and chased after Saija.

“Wait. Hold on. I thought it was nothing!”

Saija didn’t stop. If anything, she sped up. Though she did glance over her shoulder to give Irene a wan smile. “Still probably nothing,” she said. “I mean, I haven’t done anything wrong. But there are eleven other demons around here. Odds aren’t with them.”

Apparently seeing Irene’s confusion, she explained a little farther. “Think of dolls like police officers. They come after people who break their contracts.” She paused, narrowing her eyes at nothing in particular. “Have any of us made proper contracts yet?”

It wasn’t a question Irene could answer. Luckily, Saija didn’t seem to expect one of her. She shook her head and continued onwards, down the staircase.

Following along, Irene moved up right next to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Just tell it to me straight, should I be panicking right now or not?”

Saija chuckled. Not a very mirthful chuckle. Almost a sad laugh. “You haven’t made any contracts have you? Then no,” she said as Irene shook her head. “You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

“I think I’ve heard that before,” Irene said, voice flat.

Despite her misgivings, she followed along behind Saija as the demon ran around knocking on the doors on the first floor of the dormitory building.

Irene stayed behind Saija and tried hard to be as uninteresting as possible. She had enough demons—and people—interested in her as it was.

But she did watch their interactions.

Saija knocked on the first door. It took a moment, but a demon answered with relative promptness. Some demon stood in the doorway with glassy eyes. One Irene hadn’t spoken to before.

Irene hadn’t spoken to most of the demons, now that she considered the thought.

“Something you need?”

“Just thought you ought to know that a doll is running around the mortal realm for some reason. That’s all. Ta~ta!”

With a half-skip and a wave, Saija left the room and moved on to the next one.

The glassy-eyed demon froze much as Saija had when Irene first mentioned the doll, but didn’t ask for any clarification. He eyed Irene for one moment before slamming the door shut.

And then Saija repeated herself at the next room. She never stayed for long to speak with the other demons. Only long enough to tell them that a doll was in the area. She spoke lightly yet dispassionately, using the exact same tones and inflections as she had for the first demon. And, as with the first, none of the demons asked questions.

Almost as if she didn’t actually care whether or not the demons knew. It was like she was telling them out of mere obligation.

Knowing a thing or two about demons from the diablery class, Irene found it odd enough that she wondered just what was the wording of these demons’ contracts. Perhaps something like they couldn’t sabotage one another. Not telling them might count as some sort of betrayal.

As for the other demons, they all reacted in varying ways. Some didn’t seem to care. One or two started shaking with genuine fear on their faces.

But the last one…

Saija knocked as she had with the others. No one answered immediately. That wasn’t so strange. Not everyone answered as quickly as the first. A few of the other rooms had even been missing their occupants. Irene and Saija had just assumed that they were out mingling with the humans and had slipped a note into the little message box at the side of the doors.

However, someone was obviously home here. The noises coming from the other side of the door were evidence to that. Just a few moments of hearing them had Irene pulling away from the room.

The squelching and thumping. It was like someone was using eight meat tenderizers at once while singing with all the ability of a deaf walrus.

She had never actually heard a walrus sing, but that was beside the point.

Saija didn’t seem disturbed in the slightest. Angry, perhaps. Her arms were crossed over her chest. One of her fingers thumped against her arm in tempo with the thuds coming from within the room. After a moment, she hammered her fist against the door and didn’t stop until the door swung open.

The thumping within the room ceased at the exact moment that the door cracked open.

Irene looked away, almost afraid of what she might find in there.

Curiosity got the better of her.

She peeked an eye open.

Then both eyes.

A young man stood in the doorway wearing a polo shirt and slacks. His hair was neatly combed and his nails were clean, shiny, and cut short. Irene only noticed his fingers because his hand was up by his mouth as he let out a long yawn.

“You caught me while I was napping,” he said in a completely casual tone of voice.

Were it not for the noise that had been coming from his room, she might have thought that they had accidentally knocked on the door of a regular student. In fact, maybe that had been music of some sort. She had thought that something in that noise sounded like singing.

Saija kept her eyes narrowed as she pushed past the student into the room. “What were you up to?”

“Napping. I just said as much.”

“Liar. I’ve not slept once since coming to the mortal realm.”

“Don’t assume that everyone is the same as you.”

“Hmm.” Saija continued looking around the room.

From her position at the doorway, Irene couldn’t see anything odd about the room. Just a normal dormitory room. Three beds with desks at their feet, a mini-kitchen, and a door leading to a bathroom on one side of the room.

Actually, once she started really looking at it, the room was almost too clean. All three beds had their covers smoothed out without a single wrinkle. No bits of old clothing lying anywhere on the floor. The kitchen looked unused.

But there was a strong scent of lemon cleaner around the place.

“Whatever,” Saija said. “Only came by because it is demanded of me to tell you that one of the Keeper’s dolls might be somewhere around the mortal realm.”

This demon was the first to do anything more than slam the door in their faces. Something he might find difficult with Saija already inside the room. Even still, his reaction was different.

A lock of his perfectly combed hair slid out of place.

“Excuse me? I’m not sure I heard you properly.”

Saija’s face split into a grin as her gaze turned towards the demon for the first time. “Oh, I don’t believe that for a minute. Worry? Concern? I can smell it on you. Someone has been naughty. What’d you do?”

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I honestly didn’t hear you.”

“Like you honestly were napping.”

The demon opened his mouth, but Saija waved her hand.

“Protest all you want, I don’t care. It will be interesting to see if you’re still around in a few days. But I’ve done my part. Good luck,” she said, starting to leave the room. “Or not,” she added before slipping out.

Saija didn’t hesitate in beating a retreat. She gripped Irene’s arm on the way—quite a bit rougher than Irene would have liked—and dragged her down the hall.

“Ouch, hey–”

Irene cut herself off as Saija squeezed her arm. Slamming a finger over her lips, she jerked her head back towards the room they had just left.

The demon was leaning around the corner, watching them leave with a perfectly normal expression on his face.

“He isn’t what he seems. Best to get away sooner rather than later.”

The way the demon was staring at Irene in particular removed all arguments and complaints from her mind. She nodded and just about ran forward, almost dragging Saija along with her. They only slowed once they made it back to the stairwell.

“What was up with that?” Irene said after taking a moment to catch her breath. She wasn’t sure why she was so out of breath, the hallway wasn’t that long.

“He’s an odd one. Don’t worry about him too much. Though he was acting a little suspicious,” Saija said, tapping her chin. “Have any of the students gone missing recently?”

“I don’t think so… Is that a thing? Should I be worried that he’s been eating people?”

“Oh no. He would just pretend to grant people’s wishes while trapping them in a sort of alternate reality where everything is perfect, feeding off their emotions in the meantime.”

“Thats–” Irene started. She had been about to say that it wasn’t so bad, but changed her mind after thinking about it for another second or two longer. “That might be worse.”

“Yeah. I mean, technically it isn’t hurting the humans, but probably still violates the spirit of his contract. Fascinating. Let’s watch and see if the doll shows up.”

“What? Why? I thought you didn’t care about him.”

“I was just saying that. If a doll is really here to take him out, I want to watch it happen. I’ve heard about them and yet have never actually seen one.”

After being kind enough to let Irene finish filling her lungs with fresh air, Saija dragged her straight up to the second floor.

At the junction between the rest of the stairs and the second floor landing, Irene had tried to slip away. She really didn’t want to watch some demon, especially one as creepy as that perfect guy. Homework had been light so far into the year, but Irene still had an essay to write.

The second she had tried to break away from Saija, the succubus had her hand on Irene’s shoulder once again.

She could have protested, but she didn’t. Irene just sighed and resigned herself to her fate. Eva, Catherine, and now Saija, all of them traveled at their own paces and expected the same of everyone around them. Seemingly especially of Irene.

Though maybe she was the only one who needed to be dragged into things.

Juliana followed along on her own as did Shalise. Obviously Arachne wouldn’t need to be dragged into things. She was a demon and part of the things that needed dragging into. Shelby and Jordan…

Wait, Irene thought, pausing her light pacing in front of the second floor stairwell windows, Shelby and Jordan are never a part of anything. How do they manage it?

She didn’t get a chance to consider the answer.

Saija pressed her nose against the glass. “I can feel him pacing back and forth. He keeps moving up next to the window. What are you going to do?” she said, more to herself than to Irene. “Stick around? Maybe flee and try to put some physical distance between yourself and the doll?”

“If he sticks around for more than a minute or two, I’m leaving,” Irene said.

Waving a hand in Irene’s direction, Saija kept looking out the window. Irene wasn’t even sure if the succubus had heard what she had said beyond some noises coming out of her mouth.

Looking out the window herself, Irene spotted the few demons who were out of their rooms, mingling with normal students. Since they had only been left a message, they were completely unaware of the possible danger presented by this ‘doll’ thing.

“Wait,” Irene said, “what’s that up there?”

The roof of the other dormitory building wasn’t that far away. The roof of it was clear to see. Squinting her eyes, Irene could see someone standing right on the edge of the roof. Almost leaning over the edge.

Her heart clenched, thinking someone was about to jump. But the person had one boot up on the ledge as she peered over the edge. Irene had never seen someone about to commit suicide, but she doubted that they would appear so aggressive in their stance. Squinting her eyes, she was almost certain that there was a long glint of metal around her waist.

“It’s the doll!” Saija said, sounding far more enthusiastic than Irene would have expected. “I bet it is watching our dear friend on the first floor. He’s pacing still and hasn’t become more agitated. I doubt he’s noticed.”

“Shouldn’t you tell him?”

“And ruin my fun?”

“Well, you had to tell him in the first place. I figured that telling him again would be part of your contract.”

Saija waved a hand. “No no, I told him that there was a doll in the area.” She pointed out the window. “That’s a doll. It’s in the area. Anything more would just be going above and beyond the stipulations of my contract. I–”

She stopped suddenly.

Irene glanced up at the roof, but the doll hadn’t moved. Turning towards Saija, she actually took a step backwards. The succubus had her eyes narrowed in Irene’s direction. She let out a noise from the back of her throat before speaking.

“How did you know the details of my contract?”

“I guessed?”

“Well don’t,” she said, turning back to the window. “I like my private affairs to remain private.”

Irene watched Saija for a few moments, making sure that the girl wasn’t about to bite her head off for suddenly speaking again. “Sorry. I didn’t know it would be such a secret thing.”

“The problem is that I think demons can get trapped. I tell you something that I can’t do then you put me into a position where I can’t not do said thing. That’s how I wind up getting that thing after me,” she said, pointing across the way to the other dormitory building.

Before Irene could respond, Saija pointed downwards. “Wait,” she said. She hummed for a moment with a disturbing grin on her face. “He’s moving.”

Sure enough, a perfect bundle of clothing walked out onto the courtyard. Bundle might be the wrong word, but he did look dressed up for a cold day. A fluffy blue scarf was wrapped around his neck and he wore a slim coat. He took hold of the scarf and hiked it up over his nose after taking a quick look at the demons and humans still around the courtyard.

He never once looked up as he made his way out towards the city.

The doll atop the other building walked right along the edge, following along with him.

“Come on,” Saija said, turning back towards the stairs. She started upwards before realizing that Irene hadn’t followed her.

“Do I really need to go with you? That ‘doll’ thing is just going to kill him right? I don’t need to see that.”

“You don’t think it will be exciting?”

Not the word I would use for it, Irene thought as she shook her head. Morbid, more like.

If she had a book on these dolls and a nice safe place to read, she might find the topic far more interesting. She had been around far too many fights involving demons as it was. Especially if the demon found himself cornered. He might try to take hostages.

Saija had said that humans wouldn’t have much to fear from the doll things, but Irene had her doubts. If the doll really was after this demon for breaking a contract, who is to say that either would care if they had to skewer a human to get at the other.

“What would you find interesting–” Saija cut herself off as her eyes drifted over Irene’s shoulder. “Wait, where did the doll go?”

She ran over to the window once again.

Sure enough, the roof of the Gillet was void of any life. The demon was still walking down towards the city, growing smaller to Irene as he moved.

He had no haste in his gait. He didn’t betray any panic by looking around. His arms swung casually at his sides as he moved down the street. The drawn up scarf around his neck was the only real oddity and that was just because it wasn’t that cold out. And that could just be personal preference.

The demon who Saija claimed was worried out of his mind looked no different from a student heading into town to pick up some new school supplies.

At least, that’s what Irene thought up until the moment he looked up towards the sky.

His skin bubbled and boiled. Black tar escaped from his eyes.

Anything else was cut short by a sword plunging through his open mouth, skewering him and pinning him to the ground.

The leather-clad doll came down from the sky next, planting both of her boots right on the demon’s chest. His body, which had been arched and mostly upright, hit the ground hard. The sword passed right through his mouth and chest as his body moved.

Halfway split apart, the demon still tried to attack back. His arms grew longer, reaching out towards the doll with obsidian claws in place of hands.

Though there was some distance between them, Irene couldn’t detect a hint of concern on the doll’s face. She said a few words before pulling her sword from the demon’s chest.

A portal opened beneath the demon, drawing him while leaving the doll standing alone.

She brought her sword straight up in front of her before flicking it down to her side at an angle. Black tar flung off the blade, leaving its shine pristine. In the same smooth motion, she spun it around and sheathed it on the other side of her hip.

“Now you’ve got to admit, that was pretty neat.”

Irene shook her head. Her stomach was churning. It had been a relatively clean kill, all things considered. Nothing was even left of the demon. And she knew that demons didn’t die when they… died. But seeing him split open even for a moment brought up ill memories of the monstrosities that had attacked her and Eva the previous year.

The other people, both humans and demons, were panicking in various ways. Most of the humans were fleeing towards the dormitory buildings. The two demons were staring, clearly preparing to fight. One had lightning crackling between his fingertips while the other had fully reverted away from his human form, becoming a sort of music box with legs and a head. One arm poked out the side, winding a crank.

But the doll made no motion to attack. She merely glanced around the area, stopping briefly on each demon.

When she stopped on Saija, the succubus took a full step backwards. Irene could almost feel the air shaking around the demon.

As with the others, the doll eventually passed over Saija. She stared for a few seconds before turning away, facing out towards the city.

“Neat and a little scary,” Saija said, voice much quieter.

“I think I should call Eva again.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Author’s Note: There is a new chapter over on the preview site. Not Analyst or Demi-God, something new tentatively titled Specter. Longer notes at the bottom of that chapter.


008.016

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Hold on a moment,” Eva said.

She didn’t get texts often. Usually only when there was an emergency. Either Zoe or Nel using Zoe’s phone would send her something. Even rarer were actual phone calls.

Right now, her phone was ringing. They had been right in the middle of their conversation about demon hunters, tactics, possible offensive avenues, and defensive security measures. Now somebody was interrupting it.

Rude. Probably. Unless it was an emergency. In that case, Eva might be able to forgive whoever it was.

Genoa nodded an assent. Making a show of noticing that her glass was empty, she got up and walked to the kitchen to refill her water. She was actually using her own two feet. Half of their conversation had been spent on her feet, though she made liberal use of the chairs and tables around the room to lean against.

It was somewhat awkward, being seated on the couch while Genoa wandered about, but Eva ignored it for the most part. It was nice that she was on her feet in the first place. Her recovery was going well, it seemed. No brain damage as far as Eva could tell.

Though she hadn’t asked Genoa or Juliana if there actually was any. But having her heart punctured like that… even a few minutes of oxygen deprivation to the brain could cause permanent damage. It had been one of the main things Eva had tried to prevent by circulating her blood through the air.

Muscle atrophy was a whole other matter, unfortunately. After waking from her coma, she had been unable to move. Too much healing, too much risk of reopening a wound. By the time she had been able to get up for exercise, she needed a good deal of therapy.

Moreover, she was acting. A good act as she really was up on her feet.

But as Eva glanced down to her phone’s screen, Genoa let her facade slip ever so slightly.

Her smile lost its gusto. Still there, ready to reassure people that she was fine. But so long as she thought that nobody was looking, she didn’t put the effort into it. Her breathing changed to be just a bit more ragged, as if she weren’t getting quite enough oxygen though her lungs.

It wasn’t the first time she had let her act falter. Pretty much anytime she thought that her guests weren’t paying attention, she would sigh or pinch her eyes shut. Something to indicate an exhaustion that she kept hidden otherwise.

Eva hadn’t commented so far and she wasn’t about to start now.

Instead, she focused on her still ringing phone.

Irene’s name was lit up on the screen.

Which was somewhat odd. Eva couldn’t recall ever getting a call from Irene. Usually it was the other way around. Eva couldn’t think of a single reason why Irene would call. It wasn’t to hang out. Irene never initiated any kind of hang-out session.

If there was trouble at Brakket, Eva would have expected a call from Zoe first.

Unless Zoe was in trouble.

“Hello?”

“Eva? Oh good. You’re alright.”

That instantly set her on full alert. “Should I not be alright?” she asked with a glance towards Srey.

The other demon hadn’t participated even once in the conversation with Genoa. Not that Eva had really expected him to. She felt a bit bad that Srey was being used purely for his utility and not for something like his charming personality… but he didn’t have much charm under his glower.

Still, he got the message the glance conveyed and shook his head. He mouthed, ‘no one watching.’

That calmed Eva a little bit. If nobody was watching, they probably weren’t about to be ambushed. Probably. Maybe somebody was outside watching the house. They couldn’t see Srey, but they were waiting for somebody to emerge or to walk past the windows. Or maybe they had blocked Srey out of their watching somehow and could keep an eye on the rest without triggering his sense of observation.

Thinking those thoughts erased the little calm that Eva had.

And made her eye the windows with suspicion.

Her blood sense wasn’t detecting anything abnormal, but it didn’t have the range that Srey apparently had.

While Eva had been analyzing her surroundings, Irene had continued on, babbling somewhat incoherently about Saija.

What is it with that girl and succubi?

“Stop,” Eva said, latching onto a word. “Someone with a sword? Were they armored up like a medieval knight?”

“No. Saija said that they were an old lady.”

“Old? How old? Maybe an eye patch and red hair?”

Eva could almost hear Irene shaking her head.

“White hair. And Saija says no eye patch, just a leather coat.”

Some other demon hunter? Eva thought. She knew that there were some around. The demons had killed a few hunters before arriving. None since, but she could understand even a demon hunter’s hesitation in attacking a school full of children.

Frowning, Eva tried to think up anyone she knew that fit that description.

“I didn’t actually see any of it,” Irene said, ignoring Eva’s momentary lapse in thought. “I was turned away. When I did look, I still couldn’t see anything. Saija said that she was running pretty fast.”

“Right. A white-haired, leather coat wearing sword wielder who moves quickly,” Eva repeated for the sake of everyone present. “We’ll be on the lookout. You stay safe, alright. We’ll be back to the dorms…”

Eva trailed off as something clicked.

She had seen someone who fit that description.

Just once. And not for very long.

Someone who had gone unnoticed by her blood vision. Someone who had apparently broken a domain and caused the domain owner to flee into Prax’s domain.

“The doll,” Eva whispered to herself.

But it wouldn’t be coming after Eva. She hadn’t done anything. Maybe it was looking for Prax and was merely unaware that he had died.

Eva glanced over at Arachne and Srey. Void had sent the former here. Unless she had broken some other rule that Eva was unaware of. Srey… Eva couldn’t say much about. For being around each other so much these days, Eva didn’t really speak with him unless necessary.

Which might explain why he was so grumpy all the time. As far as she knew, nobody actually talked with him unless they were wondering if they were being watched.

“Well, I’ll let everyone know,” Eva said. “Thanks for the warning, Irene. Don’t worry about it though. I think I know who it was. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure. You just enjoy your time with Saija.”

“Eva…”

If Irene was going to say anything else, Eva didn’t hear it. She hung up the phone and slipped it back into her pocket.

“Well, that’s interesting.”

Arachne, on her feet and pacing around the room, turned to Eva. “Should we be on guard or not?”

“Probably. Just to be safe.”

“You know who is after us?”

“The Keeper’s doll. I think. Could be wrong. Irene was somewhat unclear.” She didn’t panic as easily as Shalise used to, but when she did get worked up, she could be hard to understand.

Arachne froze in her pacing, staring at Eva. The carapace that made up her lips curled downwards into a frown as she let out a low growl.

Compared to her somewhat subdued reaction, Srey was on his feet and at the windows almost immediately. His eyes darted back and forth while his body lost most of its solidity. After a moment, there was nothing in front of the window but an outline of the gaseous demon.

A bit of an extreme reaction, in Eva’s opinion.

“Srey,” she said. “You and the other demons were all summoned properly, right?”

“As far as I know,” he said. His voice had the air of an echo about it.

Genoa came back around the counter, casually sipping at the water in her hand. “Eva doesn’t seem worried.”

“From what was explained to me, they’re sort of like prison wardens. Unless one of us has done something worthy of demon prison, nothing to worry about.” Eva glanced between Arachne and Srey. “Right?”

“If a doll is running around the mortal realm, who knows what minor offenses— little things that are normally overlooked—that doll might notice and decide to act on. Why would it be here? Did a human break a contract? They almost never come to the mortal realm for demons. They’ll wait for a demon to die or be banished.”

Reassuring himself a little bit, Srey managed to pull himself together. He returned to his human form, stepping away from the window partially.

“We just need to make sure we don’t do anything,” he said after a deep breath. “Play it cool. Don’t draw attention.”

“Are they really so dangerous?” Genoa asked. “I can personally attest to Arachne’s strength. Eva’s blood magic is fairly formidable. I don’t know about you,” she said with a nod towards Srey, “but you are a demon. You weren’t half as worried about actual demon hunters a moment ago.”

“I’ve seen one fight,” Juliana said from within a full suit of armor. “Only for a short time as we were escaping from the prison. So fast. And its sword cut straight through everything that it came into contact with. The way it moved was… monstrous.”

“That’s because they are monsters. Shells of humans, hollowed out and filled with unnatural machinery of the Keeper’s design. They’re his hobby. Emulating Void by creating his own beings. Worse, magic fails against them. A hundred could be watching us right now with the intention of killing us in five minutes and I wouldn’t be able to sense them in the slightest.”

Eva hummed. Her brief encounter with the doll fit with that. She hadn’t been able to sense it with blood. Though she had apparently tricked it into thinking that she could sense it.

Frowning, Eva looked around with narrowed eyes. Was it already watching them? Just standing out of sight somewhere?

“Monstrous or not, you said that we shouldn’t need to worry.”

“Not unless someone has violated the terms of their contract. Or something else idiotic.”

“Arachne,” Eva said, “you don’t have a contract.”

The spider-demon’s lip curled. “Shouldn’t be a problem. Contracts are not required. They’re merely there to protect both the demon and the summoner. If a demon escapes confinement and kills the summoner before a contract is made, they can freely rampage across the Earth if they want.”

“But you weren’t summoned properly either.”

Arachne snorted. Not a sound she made often. “Void himself sent me here. If the doll is here to drag me back because of that, I can only imagine how Void might dismantle it upon its return.”

“I see,” Eva said, turning towards the doorway that led to the rest of the house. “Then why is the doll sitting around spying on us?”

Everyone in the room, despite their reassurances that there was nothing to worry about mere seconds ago, spun to face the door. Genoa had a dagger out and in her hands in seconds, pointing towards the entryway. Srey was back to his gaseous form, backing away.

Arachne flexed all of her extra legs, moving around to block Eva’s view of the doorway as she stood protectively over Eva.

A moment of tense silence passed. Everyone wondering if they should flee or launch attacks against the walls just in case.

For Eva, she was just hoping that someone would come around the corner. Anyone, really. Saying something similar had worked back in Prax’s domain. If it had failed then, nobody would have been around to call her out. Now she had caused all this commotion in hopes that it would work again.

Given how hard Genoa’s heart was beating, Eva was regretting it. The woman had been acting tired. This was just unneeded stress.

Of course, if she wanted no stress, she shouldn’t have come back to Brakket.

“Sorry,” Eva said, breaking the tense silence.

Her voice was enough to make Juliana jump. She spun around with a sword pointing out towards Eva.

Arachne knocked it away with one of her legs. Eva immediately reached forward to grab her hand before she could do anything more.

“I wasn’t going to attack,” Arachne said, barely glancing over her shoulder towards Eva. Turning to face Juliana, she continued. “Do not point swords at Eva.”

Genoa had her own focus pointed at Arachne’s back, only lowering it as the tension bled off.

“Look,” Eva said before the woman could say anything. “Let’s just all just calm down for a moment. Take a deep breath and remember that we’re all allies.”

“Eva,” Genoa said, turning her attention back to the doorway. “Did you see something or not?”

“I… thought I did.”

With all the commotion she had caused, she couldn’t admit that she was just guessing that someone was there.

Genoa sighed, leaning against the counter.

Arachne prowled around the room, head swiveling around as she tried to keep an eye on everything at once. She made her way to the doorway, stopping just outside it. Before entering, she stayed outside, listening. After another moment, she started sniffing.

Seemingly satisfied that there was nothing around, she peeked her head around the corner. All of her legs were raised protectively around her head. She walked in, made her way around the front entrance and living room before coming back to the kitchen.

“No sign of anyone. Door still locked. Windows are unbroken. There are marks on the floors, but I assume that is from regular wear and use.”

“Thank you Arachne. I guess I was wrong.”

Srey whirled on Eva. “You guess? How could you assume someone was there? We just said that magic doesn’t work on them. Including my detection magic.”

“I’m relatively certain that I’ve met this doll before. Then, I was able to detect her. Not through sensing demons or even my ability to sense blood. It was just a feeling that I got. It was correct then.” Eva turned around to face the kitchen windows that looked out over the back yard of the home. “And I still feel something.”

If the doll was still watching and just from someplace else, she wanted it to know that she knew.

Even though she didn’t.

“A sort of instinct in your gut?” Genoa asked. She was leaning against the counter with her daughter at her side, using Juliana’s shoulder as a sort of crutch. She took in a deep breath, looking around the room. “I have the same feeling.”

Eva raised an eyebrow in Genoa’s direction. “Yeah, something like that,” she lied.

But if Genoa was feeling something off, perhaps there was some truth to the matter.

“Let’s search a bit more,” Eva said. “Arachne, with me. Genoa and Juliana, if you want to sit–”

Pushing herself off the table again—and away from Juliana—Genoa shook her head. “No. This is our home and my daughter. I’ll not sit idly while danger lurks.”

Eva let out a small sigh. She knew this would happen. Even if it wasn’t the demon hunters, she had still brought danger to Genoa’s doorstep.

“Alright,” Eva said with a light sigh. Not that she really had a choice in the matter. She wasn’t Genoa’s minder. “But don’t attack if this doll doesn’t look violent. Last time, the doll wasn’t hostile. It would be better if we didn’t have to fight.”

“I agree.” Juliana moved up to her mother. Not as a crutch, but ready if Genoa needed help. “The dolls… they didn’t help us escape the prison, but they didn’t get in the way either.”

Eva blinked then frowned as something clicked. They let Juliana and Shalise escape. Nothing was wrong with that… except Prax had been inside Shalise. Or had been in control of her. Eva was a little unclear on when exactly that had happened. Her concentration had been entirely on Genoa.

But if they had let Prax escape, would they really be here for him? Moreover, would the doll have been after him even back when Eva had first encountered it inside Prax’s domain?

She had said that cells needed to be refilled, and Prax was an escapee. But if the doll hadn’t been after Prax and Shalise, then the whole ordeal with the Elysium Order’s cathedral had been for nothing.

Well, not quite nothing, Eva thought after a moment. I’m sure Shalise appreciated my efforts.

So not a complete waste. In fact, that alone probably made it worth everything.

If this truly was a doll, she needed to find out why it was here. The simplest method was to find and ask it. If it was here to find Prax or something else that Eva really didn’t care about, its presence wasn’t a concern.

“Srey, if you stay here and just keep a cellphone handy. Any sort of watching you sense needs to be messaged to us immediately.”

“I don’t have–”

Juliana pulled out her own cellphone and handed it over. “Both my mom’s number and Eva’s are in the contacts list. You know how to use it right?”

Srey ran his thumb over the screen, pausing for a few moments as he examined the icons.

“This one,” Juliana said, pointing.

It took another minute of coaching, but he managed to send out a group text in the end.

“Right. So we split up. I’ll be with Arachne, you two check upstairs.”

“The house isn’t that big.”

“I’d rather it not slip by us. Arachne can skitter around in the crawl space as well.”

“You really think that this thing would be lurking down there?”

“If it is watching us and doesn’t want to be discovered, possibly.”

Eva glanced around. Not really to look for something, but just to make an idle action as she considered her words.

“I haven’t asked about him… but we’re not going to run into Carlos, are we?”

“When you called, I sent him away. He should be minding himself at the cafe where you and I first met.”

“Is that really safe? I mean, with all the demons and demon hunters, he is all alone and without a guard.”

“Carlos can take care of himself,” Genoa said with a soft smile. She stared off into space for a moment before shaking her head. “Juliana isn’t the only one who I’ve trained, though she has taken to the lessons with far more enthusiasm.”

“If you’re sure…” Eva trailed off, waiting for some disagreement from Genoa. When none came, she shook her head. “Alright. Let’s get moving.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.015

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Wow.”

Eva rested her head on the table with a soft sigh. She had tried to keep her discussion quiet. That had failed within seconds.

Vektul, as Eva had asked of him, had gone around and warned the other demons of the sky cracking idol and the demon hunters. Unfortunately, he had gone around and told everyone during lunch. Everyone, in this case, included more than just the demons. Eva would be surprised if anyone in the whole school didn’t know what had happened the night before.

Having only gotten back to Brakket early in the morning, Eva had promised to tell her friends what she had been up to the night before as soon as school was out and they could have some privacy. After Vektul created an uproar, Eva figured that she might as well explain now.

“There were some flashes on the horizon. Shalise actually woke me up after the first one. I had been asleep.”

“I was just studying,” Shalise said. “I thought it was lightning, but there weren’t any clouds.”

“I can’t believe you ran off to all the excitement without us again,” Juliana said with a half-hearted glare.

Shalise shifted, glancing between Eva and Juliana. “I could do without all the excitement, personally,” she whispered.

“Says the girl who tried to convince Arachne to fight her without even talking to me,” Eva said, pretending she hadn’t heard Shalise’s hushed comment.

“I said I was sorry.”

Eva waved a hand. She really didn’t care if the two sparred or not. It was heartening to see Arachne consider Eva’s feelings. However, as long as she kept herself under control, they could spar all they wanted. There were more important things for everyone to worry about.

“But there wasn’t supposed to be anything exciting last night for you to miss. Just a simple terrain survey and cleanup.”

“You still haven’t explained what for.”

Eva glanced around the cafeteria.

The people who weren’t paying attention to Vektul’s robotic repetition of last night’s events were all leaning in on Eva’s conversation. Originally, he had only spoken with the demons. Loudly. Once a regular human asked for clarification on a point and he had responded without murdering them, that had opened the doors for all kinds of questions.

While the exact details of last night were no longer secret, the ritual still was. He had the sense for that at least.

Eva intended to keep it that way.

Knowing about demon hunters and the ways they could attack might be valuable for someone. Maybe it would even save someone’s life.

But not her ritual.

For Zoe, Eva had simply said that she had noticed something odd outside her prison and had gone to investigate. Eva doubted that Zoe actually bought it, but she hadn’t pressed too hard.

At least not about her reason for being out there. She asked a great deal of questions about the hunters.

Eva could understand her concern. If the hunters decided to use their sky-cracking idol around Brakket, they might kill a few demons. However, they would probably catch a great many humans in the collateral.

Looking away from Juliana, Eva just shook her head slightly. “How did they find us? They weren’t watching us before we went to my prison. Nobody was watching us when I told Srey and Vektul to meet me out there. While they might have wondered why we weren’t at Brakket and assumed that we were at the prison, they weren’t watching us before we left. We didn’t leave much of a trail for them to follow. We could have been anywhere.”

“Some kind of demonic tracking device that doesn’t trigger Srey’s sixth sense?”

“Yeah. Maybe. The good news is that they can’t block Nel’s vision. Or, if they can, they haven’t yet. She’s keeping an eye on them.”

A task she had taken to with a great deal of enthusiasm. When the inquisition had originally attacked Eva’s prison, she had put up a small protest against destroying their idol. Nothing had ever came of her momentary anger. She had either realized the necessity or had forgotten about it with her capture at Sawyer’s hands.

But seeing this mockery of the idol had set her off. Eva had a stack of maps and notes to go through as soon as school ended. Everywhere the hunters had been since their departure last night, everything they had been up to, anyone they had met with, and any possible traps around the farmhouse outside of town that they had co-opted as their base of operations.

“So we’re going to counterattack them, right?”

Eva glanced over with a frown on her face. Juliana had used the word ‘we.’

Her mother would probably kill Eva if she knew what her daughter wanted to get into.

The only real advantage Juliana had going for her was that she wasn’t a demon. None of the traps would work on her. At least, none of the ones set up to counter demons specifically. Eva couldn’t discount the possibility of generic traps.

As for counterattacking them…

Charging into Sawyer’s lair could have ended extraordinarily painfully had Eva not spotted his haugbui. That had been a stroke of luck in retrospect. He never would have gone to it had he not suspected the vampires of treachery. That had only happened because Eva failed to provide some secret passphrase, which had only happened because the vampire had gotten a call off and she needed to try hiding it from Sawyer.

A chain of luck that probably saved her life.

Even if they spied on the demon hunters for a week, Eva doubted that Nel would see every trap they had set. Even if she did see them all, who knew if she would recognize things dangerous to demons.

She could still remember opening up their apartment door to find Lucy amidst so many anti-demon magical circles that it had taken the complete destruction of the room to get her out. According to the note left behind, Eva had just about stepped into a trap that was supposed to have reduced Ylva to a scorch mark.

Attacking the hunters in their home base would likely leave them facing far stronger and far more prepared defenses.

“I don’t know,” Eva eventually said. “But something has to be done. We need a large place to work with. Their sky cracking thing ruins outdoor locations.”

“You’re just going to leave them alone? They tried to kill you!”

“I know. I’m not going to do nothing. But I’m not sure what to do.”

Juliana fell silent. She idly stirred some green sludge that had been served for today’s lunch. Eva hadn’t seen her actually take a bite of it. She couldn’t tell what it was and wasn’t about to put it in her mouth. For all she knew, it could be poisonous towards demons. Or humans. Both, probably.

“Do you want to talk with my mother? She’ll have interacted with these sorts before. Maybe enough to give you good advice.”

Not really, Eva thought. Seeing Genoa was just a little awkward these days. Avoiding the woman in the wheelchair felt wrong and yet Eva still did it. But… thinking about it a moment longer and it didn’t sound like such a bad idea.

“Maybe,” she said. “Though I’m not so sure about Carlos and your brother.”

“Brother left, actually. His vacation from his job ran out a while ago. ‘Family emergency’ only held out as an excuse for so long.”

Well, that was a positive, at least.

“Of course, if we go there, we might be leading the demon hunters right to your family. With your mother still not up to full speed…”

“I’ve been going there every week since school started,” Juliana said with a shrug. “Given my relation to you, I’m sure they already know about it.”

“But they might not have attacked because they’re seemingly unrelated to me outside of our friendship. This might be just what it takes to warrant an attack.”

“You know what?” Juliana said as she pulled out her cellphone. She held up a finger when Eva went to respond. After tapping twice, she held the phone up to her ear.

“Mom? I– No, everything is fine. Nobody is in trouble… No. Nobody died as far as I know.” She paused, rolling her eyes towards Eva before shaking her head. “I don’t know! Look, no emergency at the moment. I just wanted to ask if Eva could come over and ask you a few questions.”

“Also,” Eva added, “we might be dragging demon hunters to her home.”

Juliana rolled her eyes again. “Eva wants you to know that she is worried that some demon hunters might notice where she’s going and attack you sometime.” She paused while her mother answered on the other end of the line. After a few seconds, she turned to Eva and smiled. “She said that’s very nice of you, but you don’t have to worry about her.”

Back to her phone, Juliana said, “I told her. Yes. Alright, we’ll be over after school. Bye. Love you too, mom. Alright, bye.”

Juliana slipped her phone back into her pocket. “There. No more excuses.”

“They weren’t excuses. I was just concerned.”

“Well, be concerned no longer.”

Eva sighed, but nodded. “Alright. I’ll go.”

Now I need to think up some actual questions.

— — —

Irene watched as Eva, Arachne, Juliana, and Srey took off for the day. During their conversation at lunch, she had kept quiet and tried to draw as little attention to herself as possible. She had already gotten involved in far too many things with the group of them.

Learning about shackles and even demons was one thing. A mildly enjoyable thing.

Being chased around town by demon hunters was another entirely.

And it did not sound appealing in the slightest.

With a sigh of relief at having gone apparently unnoticed all day, Irene started into the dormitory.

Only started.

The exterior door opened up just before she could reach it and she found herself running into another troublesome individual.

“Irene!” A certain succubus said, beaming at her as she skipped the short distance between them. She put her hands on Irene’s shoulders before drawing her close and planting a kiss on each cheek. “It’s been so long.”

Pushing away from the other girl, Irene wiped off both of her cheeks before glaring at her. “You pulled me aside in the halls just earlier today. And what’s with the kissing?”

Saija was a succubus, but she had never been touchy feely like that before.

“Drew said that humans greet each other this way.”

“Maybe in France. And I don’t believe that anyway. It’s just a thing that happens in movies that people think is real.”

Saija pouted. A real lip-out pout. “Then why would he say that?”

“Because he just wants you to kiss him. Next time slap him or something,” Irene said. Drew was such a slime ball. He was supposedly going out with Kristina anyway. What was he doing tricking a succubus into kissing him?

Saija just shrugged, not looking disturbed at having been taken advantage of in the slightest.

Whatever, Irene thought. If the demon wanted to go around kissing everyone, it really wasn’t any of her business. Just so long as Irene didn’t get kissed anymore.

“Was there something you wanted?”

“You ran away from me in the hall earlier today. Did I do something wrong?”

Irene hesitated, about to deny the claim. She thought better of it after a moment and decided to simply answer with honesty. “The people who you have leashed to your little finger are not really the sort of people I hang out with.”

Especially Drew.

“Leashed to my finger? My friends?”

Irene snorted, cutting it short as she shivered a little. Summer had dragged on a little longer this year, but it was still getting to the point where she needed a light jacket while outside. Winter was coming early. She hadn’t brought a jacket as she hadn’t expected to be stuck in the entryway of her dorm for ten minutes.

“If you think those people are your friends…” Irene shook her head. “Well, you’re probably wrong. Is there a reason you stopped me out here instead of somewhere inside?”

“I didn’t want you running away again. If I’m here, then you have to get past me to get to your room.”

“There are side entrances.”

“That’s… Why aren’t they my friends? I thought humans who hung out with each other were friends?”

Irene tried to slip past Saija. The succubus spread her wings out, blocking entrance as she had said she would. While Irene could go all the way around to a side entrance, now that she had mentioned it to Saija, the succubus would probably just move to block her there.

“Those kinds of people–” I assume “–are shallow. You’re the cool new thing. A demon and a beautiful person. Once something new comes along, you’ll be dropped so they can worship that instead.” Irene paused, glancing down at the succubus’ chest. “Well, at least the ones who aren’t following you around because they’re enamored with your… assets.”

Saija glanced down at her own chest, up at Irene’s chest, then up at Irene’s face.

With a smirk.

“Ugh.”

“Don’t worry. You’re still growing, right? Humans keep developing for most of their life. Especially if you eat more,” she said, poking at Irene.

Slapping her hand away, Irene said, “I don’t care about that. Just go… play with your fake friends.” Again, she pushed past the succubus. This time, when Saija spread her wings out, Irene pressed into the leathery material until it gave way and let her into the building.

Though it took a lot more force than she had anticipated. The wings gave way not because Irene pushed more than they could handle but because Saija let her past. Without the resistance of the wing, Irene stumbled forwards. She almost fell to the ground.

A tail wrapping around her waist kept her upright.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Irene said with a sigh.

“If you really wanted past that badly, you need have only asked.”

“I’m sorry. I just…” She trailed off with another sigh, dropping her head as she did so.

I suddenly wish Eva were here.

The diablery class, barring a certain specific incident, had been somewhat enjoyable. With Eva there to watch and keep an eye on the more rowdy elements of the class, it had been a safe environment to learn in. At least, as safe as such a volatile subject could be.

Interacting with demons—even Eva on occasion—was not something she envisioned herself doing more than strictly necessary. They didn’t act like humans. They didn’t react like humans. They didn’t think like humans.

Without Eva around to act as a buffer, Irene just didn’t know what to do.

Irene idly thumbed at the leather cord around her waist.

Maybe the problem wasn’t in the demons. Maybe it was her.

Saija was easily the most personable demon of the bunch. Almost everyone got along with her just fine. But other demons had been opening up in the recent weeks. Each had their own cadre of friends, though none had as large of a group as Saija. They all, people and demons, seemed to handle themselves fine.

It was just her.

Of course, some days had Irene thinking that she was the only student in school who got bullied. Jordan never got bullied. Juliana never got bullied. Even Shalise never got bullied. Her own twin sister never got bullied.

Eva did get bullied for a short time last year just after her appearance had been revealed to everybody, but that had died off quick enough. Irene wasn’t sure if it was Eva’s menacing appearance or something else, but it wasn’t a thing that had lasted very long.

So maybe it wasn’t the demons that were the problem.

It was that Irene couldn’t properly interact with other sentient beings.

Shaking her head, Irene pulled her hand back from the leathery tail as if it had been shocked. Saija was a succubus and Irene didn’t want a scatter-brained idle action while she had been lost in thought to give the demon any ideas.

“Are you going to let me go any time soon,” Irene asked, glancing towards Saija.

But the demon wasn’t even paying attention to her.

Saija’s eyes were narrowed, glowing bright red as she gazed outside the dorm building.

Following her gaze, Irene peered out into the courtyard.

At absolutely nothing. A handful of students were meandering about. None doing anything suspicious. It was only a half-hour after school. Given the only mild cold, it wasn’t too odd to see her peers outside enjoying themselves. Two of the demons were out there as well, speaking with humans.

Interacting with people. And people were interacting with demons. Casually.

It was enough to make Irene sigh.

Though they had been warned about the sky laser beam thing—they and most of the school thanks to Vektul—apparently they felt safe enough to be outside around people.

Irene watched the two of them for a moment before deciding that nothing worthy of alarm was going on with them. They were just chatting. No rampant murders or demon hunters attack.

“Is something the matter?”

When Saija failed to respond, Irene pushed a wing out of the way to place a hand on the demon’s shoulder.

“Saija?”

The demon jumped at the contact. Her tail tightened around Irene’s waist. Not painfully. Just reflexively as part of her startled jump.

“Sorry. I thought I– It’s probably nothing.”

That made the hairs on Irene’s neck stand on end. “What was nothing?”

“Nothing,” Saija said with a smile and a shrug.

Irene shook her head. “No. You don’t get to say nothing. There are demon hunters running around, hunting demons–”

“As demon hunters are wont to do.”

“So you can’t just dismiss something that had you glaring at the air as nothing,” Irene continued, ignoring Saija’s quip.

“Sure I can. I dismiss tons of things every day as nothing,” she said, waving a hand to one side with a chuckle. “I’m not paranoid.”

“It isn’t paranoia when they’re really out to get you!”

Someone was watching them. Some demon hunter saw Irene with a demon’s tail wrapped around her waist. They would come after her thinking that she was related somehow. Her throat would be slit in the middle of the night without her even knowing.

Irene froze solid. I sit with Eva and Arachne at lunch. I am already related.

She didn’t have special powers to help defend herself. No super strength. No wings to fly away quickly. She was just a boring human caught in things that she really shouldn’t have ever–

Though already frozen, Irene stiffened further.

Saija had her chest pressed against Irene. Both arms were wrapped tightly around Irene’s shoulders as the tail tightened and dragged Irene closer. Her wings wrapped around her, shielding them from any prying eyes.

Or shielding Irene. Saija would obviously still be visible from the outside.

For a moment, Irene thought she was about to be eaten. Or something equally as terrible. But the succubus just rested her chin on Irene’s shoulder and stood there in the entryway of the dormitory building.

It took two minutes of enduring the… hug? —before Irene welled up the courage to push Saija off her.

Carefully.

She made sure she touched nothing but the demon’s shoulders. And even that was as ginger of a touch as she could manage.

“Um, Saija? No offense, but I don’t think I really… like you in a way that involves so much touching.”

“Drew said that hugging helps humans when they’re worried, nervous, sad, happy, and several other thing.”

Irene frowned. At least Saija’s tail wasn’t wrapped around her anymore. But…

“You really need to stop listening to Drew.”

“Alright,” Saija said, voice firm and slightly chipper.

“Alright?”

“I’ll tell him to go hang around with someone else.”

“I don’t– I mean, why? Why listen to what I say?”

“You were the first human to talk to me. You even invited me out to that place outside of school. It’s made me sad that you never come talk to me during school.”

“That…” Was Juliana, Irene thought. She had only been there—and at the demons’ initial arrival—because she had been dragged there by the others.

“Besides, he’s obviously been lying to me. I came to the mortal realm because someone summoned me. However, I’m still here to learn and have fun.”

“Well, okay,” Irene said. That sounded far more innocent than she had expected. Especially of a succubus. Were all of the student-demons like that?

Irene glanced over Saija’s shoulder, watching the other two demons interact with the humans around them. Maybe so.

And besides. The dean of the school wouldn’t have brought dangerous demons to interact with schoolchildren, would he? She knew Jordan’s dad. He could be scary, but he wasn’t evil.

She shuddered a little as she considered, remembering just why she had ‘needed’ that hug in the first place.

“What did you see just now?”

“Just an older woman in a long leather coat running around.”

“Old woman?”

“Well, she had white hair. That means old for humans, right?”

Irene considered Randal. His hair varied between white, silver, and plain gray depending on the lighting. But he was an exception, not the rule.

“Yeah, I suppose so. She was running?”

“Yep. Just dashed across my field of vision. She was pretty quick, I almost wasn’t sure I saw anything. Probably nothing. Though I do wonder why she had a sword. Most humans don’t carry them. Just that one professor.”

“Sword?! That doesn’t sound like nothing!” Irene paused, trying to think of something to do. There really was only one option. “We should warn Eva.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.014

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Alright! Let’s move!” Eva shouted out over the somewhat smoldering field. Arachne was a short distance away, clearing out a few tumbleweeds. Vektul and Srey were both near each other and, as such, near Eva as well.

As soon as Arachne heard the shout, she dropped her tumbleweed to the ground and started running towards Eva without hesitation.

As she ran, Eva took the time to extinguish her lingering flames. While she wanted to burn down a good portion of the area, she didn’t want to start an uncontrollable forest fire. Or field fire, as the case was. Taking the time to do so wasn’t that big of a deal either. It didn’t take long and, more importantly, Eva doubted that they would be attacked. At least not immediately.

They only just started watching.

“We don’t want to run into them on our way out,” Eva said, turning towards Srey. “Which direction are they in?”

“There are actually two separate ones. Both started looking at us around the same time. Not exactly. Maybe a minute or two difference.” He pointed a hand towards the direction of the prison. Perhaps slightly to one side. “There and over there,” he said as he swung the hand. It didn’t actually move all that far. Still in the direction of the prison, but on the other side.

“How far?”

“Not very. Not right on top of us, obviously, but maybe five minutes of walking out.”

“Both of them?”

He gave a curt nod of his head.

“Great.”

“Is it?” Vektul cocked his head to one side, almost pressing an ear to his shoulder. “Friends of yours?”

“No. Great as in: Great, they’re setting up to ambush us on our way back to the prison.”

“Oh.” His head snapped back to a straight position as his smile spread across his face. “Great!” he said sounding perfectly genuine about being happy.

Eva turned away from him, ignoring his antics for the moment. “You hear that?” she asked as Arachne ran up to her side.

“Ambush? Are we running into it? Maybe going around and flanking one of the groups?”

“If they can hear us as well as see us,” Eva said with a glance at a shrugging Srey, “they’ll know we’re coming. There are twelve demons back at Brakket. I’d rather not have us get picked off in small groups. Best to avoid them for now and try to fight as a larger group.”

“Might not be so easy,” Srey said. “I think it is safe to say that they can hear us. Both sources started moving as soon as you said to avoid them. Or maybe as soon as you said not to get picked off in small groups. Either way, they’re coming closer.”

“While still scrying on us?”

Most methods of scrying that Eva knew about required the scryer to sit in one spot. Away from her altar and incense, Nel could only get what were essentially still images. The methods she had used to test her anti-scrying packets also needed someone to sit around still pools of water. Moving the water would disturb it and break the scrying effect.

Srey’s nod at her question was somewhat disturbing, though not wholly unexpected. Eva didn’t know every method of scrying after all. They might not be scrying at all. All she knew was that they were being observed by someone who did not wish them well.

“Right. Arachne, we’re moving. Follow me. Srey, Vektul, stick close.”

Eva took off in a run. Away from the hunters and away from her prison as well.

She could teleport away with Arachne so long as they hadn’t set up any wards. It was doubtful that they had. Srey would have said something the moment that he noticed any observations. Without observations, they couldn’t have known to set up wards.

Still, while Eva could teleport, she wasn’t sure about Srey or Vektul. She couldn’t ask without giving information to the enemy so long as they were being observed. It was something that, in hindsight, she should have asked before.

Too late now.

Either they needed to escape without teleporting or they needed to get far enough away fast enough that they had a moment of privacy.

“Only one of the two are following us. The second is staying where it was. Still observing, but… wait, no. Whoever it is just stopped.”

“But the first observer is still following?”

“Matching pace. Not gaining any distance, but not losing it either.”

Eva didn’t stop running, but she did hum in thought for a few minutes.

“Shall we turn and fight?”

“No,” Eva said, glancing over at Arachne. “Not yet. We just need to distract them a little longer. The others should be almost finished by now. At least drawing them out here was a success.”

Vektul, still running, tilted his head to one side. He opened his mouth for just a moment before snapping it shut.

Eva’s glare ensured it stayed that way.

Whoever the demon hunters were, they probably knew that Eva had been lying just now. However, she didn’t need Vektul confirming it. If their pursuers got confused or worried about something happening back in town or back at the prison and left to check on it, all the better for them.

Unfortunately, even after running for another few minutes, Srey didn’t give any update about their observers.

They were still being chased.

To fight or to flee?

Eva slowed down, motioning for the others to follow her lead. She continued in the same direction. It was just at a walking pace.

“They’re keeping pace with us. No significant distance change as far as I can tell.”

“How far back?”

“Still about five minutes of walking at their current pace, were we to stop moving.”

“And direction?”

He raised an arm, pointing.

Eva bit her lip. The hunter was still between them and the prison.

What they were lacking at the moment was information. How were they being spied upon? Who? Someone she knew or some random hunter that showed up while tracking the new demons?

“Counter reconnaissance? Shall we go and see if we can’t catch a glimpse of them?”

“What happened to running… and, uh, distracting.”

Eva frowned at Srey, shaking her head. “If they are matching pace when they could easily catch up, they probably don’t want to fight.”

“You’re fooling yourself.”

Maybe so. Eva didn’t want to fight. She didn’t even want to spy on them. Getting too near to them would likely commit them to a fight. Worse, it would leave them open to that second observer circling around and flanking them.

There could even be more individuals or groups out there who weren’t actively spying but were in contact with the others.

At the same time, if they could spot their enemies, they could start planning around them…

“Actually. Wait,” Eva said as she pulled out her cellphone.

They might be able to see what she typed. If they did, it wouldn’t really matter. There wasn’t much they could do about it.

Unfortunately, she didn’t have Nel’s cellphone number. She wasn’t sure if Nel even had a cellphone.

Zoe. I need you to get to Nel as fast as possible. Have Nel scry on me. Then, have her search a short distance south until she sees any other groups of people.

With a tap of her thumb, Eva sent the text out to Zoe.

It would solve at least one problem. Namely, who their pursuer was. If Nel could continue watching them until they went back to wherever they had made their base, it would be possible to turn the tables. They could be more offensive.

Unfortunately, Zoe would be wondering what Eva and three demons were doing out in the middle of nowhere. She would have to explain that later on. Maybe the truth, maybe some excuse. That could be decided whenever she had to explain. Hopefully she would go on and ask Nel with haste and without complaint.

The return message came almost instantly with a light beep on Eva’s phone.

Please tell me that you aren’t out looking for demon hunters.

Well, that’s an easy enough request.

I am not out looking for demon hunters. Nel?

Setting up her altar. Also not happy about being woken up.

“Well tough for her,” Eva said aloud. She didn’t bother replying, though she kept her phone out and in her hands just in case Zoe sent a reply. “Any change in their distance, Srey?”

“No change in the last few minutes,” he said, glancing off in the direction of their watchers. “I don’t like this. What are they waiting for? We’re doing nothing interesting and they’re still watching us.”

Eva glanced over towards Arachne and Vektul. Arachne stood as a silent aegis over her, ready to protect Eva if need be. Her eyes were glued on the horizon of the rolling hilltops as if daring the hunters to crest the top. Hands curled at her sides, Arachne stood slightly hunched. Just enough to easily leap into motion at the first sign of trouble.

Vektul, on the other hand, stood far more lackadaisically. Like a bored student. Not a single muscle in his body was tense.

Though he was staring up at the sky with some intensity.

Following his gaze, Eva found herself frowning at the clear night sky. The sun had finally fallen below the horizon not long ago—just before they had started running—and the stars had come out in force. With no nearby lights of any kind and the moon a mere crescent, Eva could even see the milky arm of her galaxy against the stars.

But nothing more interesting than that.

“Something up there?” she couldn’t help but ask.

“It might not be a good idea to stand still,” he said without a hint of fear in his voice.

But something sent a chill up Eva’s spine. She glanced towards the sky again, staring at one particularly bright star directly overhead.

Something clicked. Eva didn’t argue with Vektul.

She immediately turned and blinked in the direction away from the observers. Arachne caught on quick, actually lifting Vektul off the ground and carrying him over her shoulder. Srey turned to mist and whisked off ahead of even Eva.

They cleared the area just in time for a white beam of magical light to crash down right where they had been standing. The cold of the night was chased away by the blistering heat of the beam.

“It’s that thing from the Elysium Order,” Eva hissed.

Not the most articulate response Eva could have come up with. Nobody else present had even been around for the inquisition’s attack on the prison. She had told Arachne in the time since, but Arachne hadn’t been nearby.

At the moment, she was too busy running away to explain more.

This was bad. The nuns hadn’t used the device—Nel had called it cracking the sky, if Eva remembered accurately—while Eva had been indoors. They didn’t have shelter out here. Nothing but fields, hills, and occasional trees. Nothing that would stop a magical weapon of that magnitude.

Eva’s cellphone started going crazy. A constant stream of beeps indicating messages gave way to an incoming call ring.

She slapped the phone to her ear without stopping running. “Zoe? Little busy here.”

“I-it’s Nel! There’s an armored man following you. I think he is reading out your location over a phone.”

“Right. Thanks.” Nothing unexpected there. She had assumed that whoever was observing her was in contact with others. It was good to know that it was the armored man again. She wasn’t entirely sure how that helped at this exact moment, but so long as they got out of there, it could come in handy.

“There was another observer,” Eva said into the phone. “One that hasn’t been following us. If you look between us and the prison, there should be a large patch of scorched earth. Keep following it back towards the prison and you might see that observer, if they haven’t moved that is.”

In the mean time, Eva had to get her group out of here.

Preferably without revealing too many abilities, but with that sky cracking thing, Eva wasn’t about to discount anything.

“Vektul,” she said as they ran, holding the phone a short way away from her ear. Still close enough to hear if Nel had anything important to say. “Your portals. Can other people pass through them?”

She hadn’t wanted to ask while her pursuers could hear. With that Elysium Order beam, she didn’t have much of a choice.

“I suppose so,” he said, voice vibrating slightly with each of Arachne’s footsteps. “As long as I kept it open for others.”

Eva turned directions without responding. The others would follow her lead. Probably. If they kept running in a straight line, the hunters would be able to target them by just casting the sky cracking spell some distance ahead of them.

“Excellent. Open–”

“Eva,” Nel’s voice half-shouted over the phone.

Eva moved it closer to her ear before responding. “I’m here. What is it?”

“There’s some woman in a wheelchair. She’s sitting in front of… it’s like some sort of mockery of the Elysium Order’s idol. Twisted and evil. You must destroy it!”

“That’s nice Nel,” Eva said. “Tell me, does this woman have an eye patch? How about a few holes in her back?”

“Eye patch, yes. But she’s wearing clothes. Would the holes be in her clothes as well? I don’t see any.”

“Thanks Nel.” Eva disconnected the call. If something really important came up, she was sure that someone would call back soon.

New mission: Survive. That was always a priority, really. However, Eva really did not want to allow her enemies to possess a sky cracking idol.

“Vektul, can you portal us back to the field?”

“That might be too far away.”

“As close as you can then.”

Just as had happened back at the prison, a dark portal opened in the air in front of them. It started small before widening to a proper size.

Eva didn’t break her stride. She charged right into the portal and out the other side. Whether through clever portal placement by Vektul or simple luck, the ground was at the perfect height and incline to keep her from stumbling.

Less lucky was the addition of a new humanoid in range of her blood sense. Her demonic companions emerged from the portal behind her one by one. None of them concerned her.

Ahead and to the side, Eva found herself close enough to see one of their pursuers.

Not the woman.

A man clad in shiny metal armor stood at the crest of a hill only a quick blink away. The same man who had defeated Zagan at the start of summer.

Notably, his armor was not the same. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that large portions were missing. His arms and boots were clad in metal. One of his legs as well. His other leg and chest just had some kind of padded undergarment.

There was no surprise or shock in his posture. His heart rate remained steady as he drew his sword. A long, curved sword.

The same one that had torn up Zagan.

The vials of demon blood beneath Eva’s cloak exploded, releasing the liquid into the air. Two orbs formed into rings, flying off towards the hunter. Another two orbs formed up into a shield around Eva.

Her shield solidified just in time. The knight dashed forwards in the blink of an eye. His sword came down on the shield.

The blade bit into the membrane, piercing a portion of it, but stopping before it could cleave through Eva.

Both rings she had sent out passed the knight during his charge. She recalled them, but by the time they reached the knight’s back, he had already dashed away.

“Arachne!” Eva shouted, seeing his target a moment before he reached the demon.

She jumped backwards just a hair too late. One of her back legs fell to the ground even as her body flew backwards.

Eva’s shield, or what remained of it, collapsed into solidified daggers of blood as she blinked straight to the hunter. If they were hovering orbs, they wouldn’t blink with her. Daggers would.

And with much of his armor missing, he had plenty of soft spots for Eva to jam the daggers into.

Eva aimed for a particularly soft spot right around his armpit.

His body wasn’t there by the time her dagger reached her target. Somehow, he had managed to get behind her with his blade already swinging towards her neck.

Eva blinked again, not really aiming anywhere in particular. Just so long as she wound up far enough away from that sword.

Srey moved in to Eva’s vacancy, letting the sword pass harmlessly through his ethereal vapor form. The moment it was safe, he solidified.

When he did so, he wasn’t in the form that Eva had become accustomed to.

He looked humanoid, but his body looked like molten vapor. Dark plumes of smoke erupted from a white-hot mist that made up the solid portions of his body. He reached forwards, hands passing through the helmet of the hunter. He retracted his hands almost immediately in apparent pain.

But not before Eva heard a cough.

The hunter stumbled slightly as he coughed a second time.

Eva wasted no time. She didn’t know how long they might have even a slight advantage.

She blinked forward again, arm already posed to bring a dagger down into his shoulder.

He moved a gauntlet up, catching the solidified blood with the back of his hand. Shards split off. Some larger chunks dug into the metal. Other smaller bits sprayed around the area.

Eva clapped her hands together anyway, blinking away as she did so to avoid his raised sword.

His gauntlet protected him from the explosion. Partially. Most of the metal scattered around the area in tiny shards—shards that burned her skin anywhere they touched. She obviously hadn’t blinked far enough away.

But he was still in a worse state. Save for a few fingers, he no longer had a gauntlet on his off-hand. Unfortunately, save for a slight blemish, his actual arm was otherwise untouched.

He was still coughing. More frequently than before.

Before Eva could blink back in and offer him the other dagger, he disappeared.

Eva’s head whipped around as she searched for where he dashed off to this time.

Except, neither her eyes nor her sense of blood could find him anywhere nearby.

Eva pulled out her cellphone, speed dialing Nel before it even hit her ear.

The augur picked up the second the ring sounded.

“Talk to–”

“The eye patch woman is going to crack the sky again!”

“Vektul,” Eva shouted. “Portal to anywhere that isn’t here! Everyone else, get through it.”

It took only seconds for the demon to comply. Eva dashed into the portal alongside the others, chased by the white beam of light crashing down on their position.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.013

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“I don’t see why you need me for this.”

Juliana’s concentration collapsed. Along with it went the few particles of iron that she had managed to conjure up.

She took a deep breath and let it out as a long sigh. “All that progress. Gone. Just like that.”

“Progress? You’ve been standing in one spot for the last hour doing nothing.”

“Didn’t you see all the iron? I conjured that.”

“I saw nothing.”

“Then you weren’t looking.”

Arachne glanced off to the side, looking back towards the direction of the school building.

It might have been her imagination, but it almost seemed as if she let out a small sigh of her own.

“Why am I here again? I know nothing about thaumaturgy. And this doesn’t seem to be a secret thing that you would need to come out into the woods with a bodyguard for.”

“Bodyguard?” Juliana raised an eyebrow. “Is that what you think you’re here for?”

Taking a deep breath, Juliana closed her eyes in mental preparation. As soon as she opened her mouth again, there might be no going back. But she needed this. She had her goals and Arachne was going to help her accomplish them.

Whether Juliana wanted her to or not.

“I want you to fight me.”

The moment the words left her mouth, Juliana sprung into action. She couldn’t let Arachne have the initiative. There was no Eva around at the moment. No one to chide Arachne if she went too far. No one to watch and ensure that Juliana lived.

Arachne would be free to fight however she wanted. Juliana held no doubts that she would. She had picked today specifically because Eva had an exam as soon as lunch ended while Juliana didn’t.

Juliana lunged forward with an arm. A thin blade sprouted out of her wrist as she moved. It extended a good deal out from her body.

She hadn’t been lying to Eva. Affecting metal away from her body wasn’t possible—at least, it didn’t use to be possible before breaking apart that emblem. It was still much too difficult to use in a combat situation.

Luckily, with how she had been taught ferrokinesis, she didn’t need to do anything to metal outside of her body. The metal that she controlled was almost an extension of her limbs. It was much easier to manipulate metal no more than an inch away from her skin, but she could do simple things like extend spikes from a contiguous bit of metal.

She still built her sword from the tip down, extending it outwards as she poured more metal into the construct.

The demon-harming metal in her collection stayed behind. Juliana only used normal iron and steel in the sword.

The special metal was making up her armor. Especially around her neck and head. Just in case Arachne did decide to go all out.

Maybe she wanted Arachne to go a little easy on her. Slashing her with a weapon that would cause severe harm would maybe make her a little angrier than Juliana wanted. They still didn’t completely understand the metal and she didn’t want to permanently injure Arachne. Or temporarily, for that matter.

She wanted a fight. Not a slaughter.

Arachne didn’t even look surprised at being suddenly attacked with a sword. She stepped to one side, dodging Juliana’s lunge before grabbing the sword with her hands. A leg from her back, which hadn’t been there a second ago, thrust forward, snapping the blade just above Juliana’s outstretched hand.

Juliana dodged backwards, rolling along the ground and manipulating the earth as she went to give her just a little extra distance.

Only… As Juliana got back to an upright fighting position, she realized that Arachne hadn’t followed up with an attack. Her dodge had been meaningless.

And even now, the demon was just standing there, staring at her with the bit of broken metal in her claws.

Juliana watched it carefully. In Arachne’s spars with her mother, she had not been shy about catching and returning the rocks and boulders that Genoa had thrown. Usually with as much or more force behind them.

But the spider-demon just dropped the blade, letting it fall straight to the ground without even trying to kick it towards her. She turned and started walking.

Confusion took over Juliana for a few moments. Is it a ploy? she thought. Some sneaky way to attack?

It quickly dawned on her that Arachne was not trying to lull her into some false sense of security. She was walking away.

“Wait! Where are you going?”

“I have better things to do than play with you.”

“Like what?” Juliana asked as she ran after the spider demon. She did pause just long enough to reach down and reabsorb the bit of blade into her armor as she passed it. “Need to ogle Eva some more?”

It was a dangerous game she was playing. Needling Arachne about Eva was one of those things that might really set her off.

But the demon just kept walking.

“What’s your problem?” Juliana asked. She threw a little magic towards Arachne’s feet, causing one to sink into the ground a few inches.

That gave the spider-demon about as much pause as a fly brushing past her face.

“I have had a great deal of time to think,” Arachne said, pulling her leg out of the ground and continuing her stride almost unbroken. “Between my self-imposed isolation after the… incident with your mother and my detention in Hell. I have decided, on my own, to become a better person.”

“By whose standards?”

“Eva’s, of course. A year ago, I would have torn you to shreds. Eva isn’t around. Whatever she thought about it could be dealt with later. Now, I don’t want to fight you.”

“You can’t even spar with me?”

“I’d rather not risk hurting you.”

Juliana froze, looking at Arachne with her mouth agape. Was this even the same demon? What had Hell done to her? Shaking her head, she skipped forwards to catch up with the rapidly retreating demon.

“You sparred with my mother all the time. You never hurt her!”

“Are you forgetting the part where I put her in the state she is currently in? Barely better than an invalid.”

Juliana reached forward, gripping Arachne’s wrist. She made sure to move the metal out of the way before touching her. Burning her with the hunter’s metal right now wouldn’t advance any of Juliana’s goals.

When Arachne didn’t swat her hand away, instead stopping and turning, Juliana grew a little more confident. She stared into Arachne’s red eyes—her main two anyway, Juliana kept her gaze steady rather than flick to each set of eyes.

“You apologized for that. I’ve accepted your apology. More, I’ve decided that you didn’t apologize just because Eva made you.”

That last bit she had been convinced was false up until about thirty seconds ago. Arachne deciding not to fight and her current attempt to escape the situation just made it all the more convincing.

After another moment of keeping their eyes locked together, Arachne turned with a slight snort. Her hand slipped out of Juliana’s grip and she resumed her march.

“Besides,” Arachne said, not looking towards Juliana as they walked alongside each other, “I’ve still hurt her during our spars. Unless we have different definitions of the word. I seem to recall tearing out her throat once.”

“That…” Was true. Partially. It had been more of a scratch, really. A particularly bloody scratch that went just a bit too deep and took out a bit too much flesh. “Well, just don’t do that.”

“I don’t think you quite understand the difficulty of holding back while in real combat.” Arachne did glance down towards Juliana this time. Just long enough to make sure that Juliana saw the sneer. “I suppose that wouldn’t be much of a problem in fighting you. I doubt it would be much of a fight.”

“You won’t know until you try.”

Again, Arachne stopped. “Do you honestly believe that you can fight me? Even with me tying all of my limbs behind my back, do you think you have a chance?”

Gritting her teeth, Juliana broke her gaze with Arachne.

“I didn’t think so. You aren’t your mother.”

“She was the one who suggested I come to you in the first place.

“I need training,” Juliana said when Arachne didn’t respond. “With all the monsters running around, I need to be a better fighter. Zagan’s combat course got canceled with him gone and the after-school dueling club is just fighting other students. My mother is in no position to train me so you’re the next best choice.”

Arachne stared for a moment, eventually shaking her head. The hard carapace covering the tendrils that had taken place of her hair snapped and crackled as they hit each other. “I’m your third choice to teach you to fight?” She let out a cold laugh. “Something has seriously gone wrong with the world.”

“What else is new?”

“But I’m the wrong choice. I know nothing of thaumaturgy. I don’t know how mages should fight with it. I don’t know how to teach. Find somebody else. Your professor knows how to fight, get her to do it.”

“Not an option.”

She had suggested Zoe to her mother. Her mother had shut that option down. Zoe was not a fighter. She could fight, but there was a difference. Being able to fight did not mean that they were a good person to learn from. Perhaps the basics. Her mother hadn’t had any complaints about the seminar that Zoe put on over the summer. She had even attended one or two of the sessions.

But Genoa wanted an opponent like Arachne. Someone similar to what Juliana might have to fight in real life. Preferably someone who wasn’t going to hold back much either.

That didn’t look like it was going to be an option, but Juliana would take what she could get.

“Help me. If you really need, we can ask Eva for permission.”

“That would be more acceptable. I don’t like going behind her back. Though I will warn you: we might not have much time for you.”

Juliana frowned, crossing her arms as she stared at the demon. Was Arachne really that busy? Apart from hanging off Eva like a lost puppy, Juliana couldn’t think of a single thing that Arachne had done that might take up any amount of time.

“We have a certain project we’re starting soon. We’re expecting it to consume a fair bit of time. Lots of work to do.”

“She hasn’t told me about anything like that.” Not unless Eva had decided to sign up for the school’s activities.

“You’ve never asked.”

— — —

“You told her?”

“I didn’t tell her what we were doing.”

Eva rubbed her forehead. “No, but now she’s going to be asking all the time until I tell her something. I guess we can save that for later. Everything ready?”

“Are we really sure about leaving right now? The demon hunters–”

“Are still watching the town,” Eva said. She gave a quick glance towards Srey for confirmation.

His arms were crossed and his eyes narrowed, but as soon as Eva looked at him, he sat up and spoke somewhat respectfully. “Nobody has been watching us with any kind of hostility since we got to this place. For the record, everything about this plan is bad and you all should feel bad for dragging me into it.”

“Noted. Don’t care.”

Eva hadn’t wanted to bring Srey into the loop. The less people who knew about the ritual, the less failure points it had. However, without having a method to block out the demon hunters’ spying, Srey was one of the most valuable tools around.

Unfortunately, he could only detect scrying. And only scryings with less than noble intent in the mind of the scryer towards the subject. That meant that Eva was going to run into the same problem that Sawyer had when she had been stalking him. The only difference was that she knew that she was being watched.

But for the time being, they had land to survey. The ritual wasn’t quite as large as Sawyer’s field. Close, but not quite. They needed a relatively flat area free of most trees, shrubberies, and other foliage.

She doubted that she would be able to find a location that fit that criteria. She would have to make one. Eva planned to burn most of the plant life away.

Though, maybe bringing Juliana into the ritual wouldn’t be a bad idea. She could help level the terrain.

Not tonight though. Tonight it was just Eva, Arachne, Vektul, and Srey.

“You all ready to go?” Eva asked, glancing around at the gathered demons.

Arachne immediately stepped up to her side. She flexed her fingers as a few spare legs grew from her back. While she didn’t grow to her full size, she made herself as menacing as possible. They weren’t planning on fighting, but nobody wanted to be caught unprepared.

The other two were somewhat slower to jump to their feet. Vektul had taken a liking to the couches inside the women’s ward. At least, he was smiling a lot. Too much, really. Whoever had taught him about smiling should have mentioned that it wasn’t something to be done constantly.

He gave off too many Sawyer vibes like he was.

Well, not quite as bad.

Vektul’s smile, though just as wide as Sawyer’s, was more like that of an innocent child. He emanated none of the malicious vibes that Eva had felt anytime she had been in Sawyer’s presence.

On the other hand, Srey’s perpetual scowl only deepened as Eva turned to him. Not even her ‘honored’ status among demons could get him to smile at the moment. Or even look mildly content. He grumbled for a moment as he stood up. “We’re going to get ambushed.”

“Just keep an eye out for anyone spying on us. We’ll leave immediately upon being noticed. No chances.”

Tonight was for survey only. Nothing more.

Well, maybe a little foliage clearing if they had the time. Eva already had a spot in mind. An old farmer’s field not far from the prison. Far enough away that it couldn’t really be seen, but not so far that it would be overly troublesome to get to without constructing a gate.

Vektul, seeing that everyone else was up and waiting for him, finally got to his feet. Not before letting out a long sigh as he left the couch. Eva didn’t think it was that comfortable, the bed in his dorm was probably better. Maybe he had lived on nothing but beds of nails in his domain.

Either that or he was simply not emoting properly again.

None in their group could blink except for Eva, so they would be walking. Luckily, everyone here was a demon. They all had the stamina and speed to run at a decent pace.

“Follow me,” Eva said.

Running out of the women’s ward, Eva blinked to the top of the nearest exterior wall. Arachne quickly followed, though she jumped to reach the wall. Srey was next. Rather than climb or blink, he turned into his misty form and just sort of drifted to the top. He reformed into a solid demon just to the side of Eva.

Vektul stayed behind, looking somewhat confused. He turned almost a full circle around before tilting his head to one side. Glancing at the base of the wall before glancing up to Eva, he straightened his neck. “Our intention is to arrive on the other side, is it not?”

“If you put a hole in my wall, I’ll kill you.”

“That will not be necessary.” He crossed his arms across his chest.

Nothing else happened.

Eva was about to send Arachne down to pick him up when the ground beneath him opened up in a gaping black portal. He fell in and the portal shimmered away into nothing behind him.

The portal was something that Eva had seen before. Several times, in fact. Any time a demon was banished or died, they fell into a very similar portal as Void reclaimed them. It was similar enough that Eva had to turn to her companions and ask, “Did he just kill himself?”

Arachne just shrugged. Srey, on the other hand, actually took a step back. He was staring at the spot Vektul had just occupied with a look of bewilderment. Something akin to the looks that he sometimes gave Eva when he thought she wasn’t looking.

While neither said a word, Eva did get her answer.

“No. I haven’t killed myself.”

Turning to the sound of the voice, Eva found Vektul stepping out of an upright portal on the outside of the prison. He glanced around once before nodding to himself with a wide smile. “Yep. I’m fine.”

Opening her mouth, Eva found herself hesitating. Was it just a method of teleportation that looked like what happened when a demon died? Was it more than that?

Did it really matter?

Not at the moment. She might interrogate him later. For now, the longer they waited, the more likely it was that the hunters would turn their gaze in Eva’s direction.

“Alright. Let’s get moving then.”

Eva blinked to the ground, letting the others follow her in their own ways. Once on the ground, she just ran. Blinking might put her too far out of earshot to hear any warnings from Srey.

The actual run was a bit colder than Eva would have liked. Winter came early this year, though there was still no snow on the ground. At least it wasn’t pitch dark out in the early evening just yet. The sun was close to the horizon, but not quite at it yet. They should have a good hour of light. After that, if they were still outside, Eva could toss a few light spells around for a decent amount of light.

“This is around where I was thinking,” Eva said as they crested the top of a shallow hill. There was an equally shallow valley on the other side. Not too much plant life. A few stray bushes here and there. Lots of grass and underbrush, but that would be easy to burn away. Because it had once been a farmland, there were no major trees. Just little saplings that had sprouted since the farm had been abandoned.

Vektul hummed, glancing around the place. He walked along the top of the hill around to one side, pausing to observe from there. Eva followed behind him as he ran through his inspection. She gave the occasional glance towards Srey who always responded with a shake of his head.

So far, so good.

“It’s large enough.”

“Maybe not flat enough,” Eva said, preempting any arguments on that front. “But that shouldn’t be hard to solve.”

“No overhead cover. This weather you have around here might ruin any engravings or markings we make.”

“Also somewhat easily solved.”

Warding was an amazing thing. While she might have been able to whip up some sort of protective shield through runes—such a thing should be entirely possible, though she had never tried to do so over such a large area—warding could do it all and much faster. Not only did she not have to write anything down, she also did not have to experiment too much. Shifting most of the busy work to pure thought removed a lot of the effort.

Of course, she wasn’t quite certain that she was good enough to do something like that. Yet. Luckily, it didn’t need to be done right this very second. There was a good deal of preparation that needed doing before any real circle-making could begin.

“I think it should work then,” Vektul said. “You still have not collected the necessary mages and demons.”

“First thing,” Eva said, holding up a finger, “we have a lot of work to do before then. This ritual circle is not going to be drawn in a single night. One thing at a time.”

A month might be too generous of a time frame even if they recruited Juliana to help dig out the lines for the ritual. Without her, Eva would be out using a shovel. Her meager skill in earth magic wasn’t quite up to the task of drawing out such a ritual site.

Eva lit up her hands. First things first.

She started marking out a wide outline of a ring, keeping the flames carefully controlled on the outside so as to not burn more than she needed. The ring wasn’t perfect. She didn’t want it to be. At least not yet. Some hunters would almost assuredly stumble across this place. If it looked like an obvious ritual circle, they would do the same thing that she had done to Sawyer.

Fighting with Arachne might work as a cover guise should anyone start spying on them. However, there was a point where tearing down the bushes just became too much work and too impractical while mock-sparring. After a few minutes of no one watching them, Eva dispensed with the cover and started throwing flames around.

After an hour, she only had about an eighth of what she wanted to have done. Burning everything wasn’t difficult work, but it did consume some time. Especially with only her able to really do the work.

Arachne did her part by uprooting the small trees and larger bushes and tossing them out of the ring Eva had made. Neither Vektul nor Srey were really equipped to help out much. They just stayed to the side and watched.

At least, until Srey stepped forwards.

“It’s started again.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.012

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Vague directions, as it turned out, were not the best ways to find people. Especially not people who were spying on Eva and probably knew that she was on her way to find them. Given the time it had taken to gather everyone up, their spy would have had plenty of time to move.

Srey ended up bringing everyone to a stop in an alley some distance from the school.

“This is the spot.”

Eva glanced around, looking for any sign that someone had been around. Her sense of blood wasn’t picking anything up. Neither people nor droplets left behind from cuts or other injuries.

“Here,” Arachne said. She had crouched down, running her long fingers against the ground.

Her fingers were just a few inches away from touching a small metallic emblem. Its silver sheen stuck out against the darker colored ground. There was nothing obviously anti-demon about the simple eye-shaped symbol on the front. But best to err on the side of caution. Especially given the fact that it was metal.

Eva didn’t need to tell Arachne not to touch it. Though she was too close for comfort. With how much the apartment room had been trapped for Ylva, there could be traps lying around for anyone approaching. But Eva couldn’t see any on the walls or ground, so there probably wasn’t much cause for worry. At least on that front.

Touching it was an entirely different matter.

Juliana came up alongside Eva and Arachne, squatting down at their sides. Most of her armor was under her clothes. Still, Eva slid over just a small bit, making a little more room.

Her armor was the perfect example of why she didn’t want to touch the emblem. It was still made up of the metal that had broken off the demon hunter’s armor. No matter what shape it was in, the metal still hurt. While possible it was some lingering enchantment, it was far more likely that the effect came from the metal itself. Something specifically designed to hurt demons. Zoe had a sample that she was investigating, but nothing much had come of it so far.

The small bit Juliana had claimed turned black had a certain resemblance to void metal that was not lost on Eva.

But that had been silver in coloration before changing. This emblem was bright glittery gold.

“We should destroy it,” Eva said before anyone else could offer their input.

“Without investigating it? What if it is important?”

Eva glanced over to Vektul and shook her head. “You usually don’t leave important things lying around. Not to mention, it has an eye on it. We already know that they are spying on us. Perhaps there is information that they cannot glean through whatever methods they are using. Giving this to someone to look at might just reveal more than we want. Touching it might put some curse on us so that even if we destroyed it later, they could still spy.”

“What if it could be reversed? We could spy on them then.”

A possibility. Eva couldn’t dispute that. However, they already had Nel. Her ability penetrated almost any wards. In fact, the only things that could block it would be whatever Sawyer had done to Del and whatever Lynn Cross did—something that was exclusive to the higher-ups in the Elysium Order. Both methods involved the Elysium Order’s eyes.

Well, that and Ylva’s domain. The way domains interacted with the mortal realm while anchored was odd, occupying the same space at the same time. But the demon hunters probably didn’t have access to a domain.

Juliana had mentioned that they were being spied upon the other night, but Eva hadn’t had time to do much about it. Hopefully their method of spying could be blocked through use of her anti-scrying packets. It was a task she planned on working on in the evening. She could slap a packet on Srey and see if he noticed anything.

For now though, Eva just shook her head again. “Not worth it. Also don’t say anything secret while around here,” Eva said, glancing towards Srey. He gave a small nod of his head. “They might hear through it; they’re still watching us. And watch for ambushes.”

As soon as Eva mentioned the possibility of ambushes, Juliana dropped into a combat stance. The metal molded from mostly covering her to completely encasing her. Her head swiveled around as she looked for any sign of impending attack, making her neck look odd where the hard metal of her head and shoulders flowed into liquid metal.

Eva doubted the actions were really necessary. She could see humans through walls for a decent distance. If anyone was around the immediate area, she would have warned them. However, it was good that someone was vigilant. Arachne barely glanced around and Vektul just cocked his head to one side.

Just because she couldn’t see anyone around didn’t mean that they couldn’t attack her. Teleporting in was a possibility. So was some attack dropped on them from above. It was good that the Elysium Order took a ‘not my job’ stance on demons.

Eva did not really want to face that laser beam from the sky again.

But how to destroy the emblem? Her explosions might be good for wood and other, more fragile materials. A small bit of metal would probably just be knocked around rather than take any real damage. And she doubted that she would be able to form a flame hot enough to melt it much.

Since Sawyer’s death and the events immediately after, Eva had become far more wary about using her own blood for frivolous tasks. Especially if she thought she might be fighting soon, which was a possibility at the moment. She had almost passed out after rescuing Lucy from the demon hunter’s clutches.

Of course, she did have a few vials of Arachne’s blood. Again, the possibility of a fight in the near future was quite high. Best to save it for immediate threats.

Demons all used their bare hands to fight. So long as they were counting out touching the emblem, the demons were out as well.

Leaving just one person.

“Juliana,” Eva said, glancing in her friend’s direction.

The sudden sound gave the girl a small start, but she quickly got over it.

“Yes?”

“Can you pull this apart into small pieces?”

Even if it wasn’t violently split apart, it should be enough to destroy most magic on the metal.

Juliana crouched down and reached out towards the emblem. She paused, pulling back after a moment with a shake of her head.

“I’d have to touch it. I can’t– My mom could. We’d have to go–”

Eva put a hand on Juliana’s shoulder, suppressing the wince as her hand started melting. She only kept it there long enough for Juliana to stop talking. Removing her hand was almost as painful. Wisps of smoke came off Eva’s hand.

She ignored it for the moment. Clenching her fist shut solved the problem. Her own natural healing—something Eva had discovered in the recent weeks since her last treatment—would take care of it. It wouldn’t be quick as she wasn’t quite on Arachne’s level of regeneration, but a few boils were well within her ability to heal.

She doubted that she would be able to grow back a full limb.

“Try. You’re the best student in our class. You’ve been using magic since long before school started. You decided to specialize in ferrokinesis. If anyone can do it, you can. No fancy shapes. No delicate molding. Just break it apart.”

That shouldn’t be too hard, right? Eva actually had no idea. Her own earthen talents were far from the best. Definitely not nearly good enough to manipulate metal to the degree that Juliana could. She was casually learning air magic first.

If she had thought that learning pyrokinesis was a nightmare, air was another monster entirely.

While Eva was considering their respective specializations, Juliana had stretched her hand out again. The metal around her face had partially melted away, revealing a face scrunched up in concentration. Her eyes were open and narrowed in a tight glare as she chewed on the edge of her lip.

Eva almost offered a few more words of encouragement. She refrained, choosing to remain silent. As it was, she didn’t want to break that intense concentration.

Instead, Eva concentrated as well. Maybe if she could get the walls to start bleeding, she could use that blood. It was odd that she could use it at all given that it hadn’t ever run through the veins of a living being—to her knowledge at least—but Eva wasn’t about to complain. The greatest limitation to blood magic, aside from the cost of bloodstones, was actual blood. If she could get around it, all the better.

A metallic ting echoed through the alley.

“Ah,” Juliana said, accompanying the ting. A wide grin grew on her face. “I did it!”

Broken out of her thoughts, Eva smiled at her friend.

The emblem had a clean split straight down the center. All without Juliana even moving her hand closer than a few inches.

“Good job. Can you split it again? Maybe a few more times?”

“I… think so.” She paused with a shake of her head. “Yes. Yes I can.”

It took another minute, but Juliana split half of the half. Thirty seconds later had her splitting the other half. Every time she tried, she got faster. By the time five minutes had passed, she had turned the badge-sized emblem into a few chunks and some coarse dust.

“We shouldn’t just leave it here,” she said once nothing significant remained. “It’s enchantments should be broken right? Would it be a good idea to absorb it into my armor?”

“Can you keep it separate? Or, better yet, just float it in front of you? So long as its enchantments are gone, we can deliver it to Zoe for further examination.”

“Let me try.”

As she got to work, Eva got up and headed over towards Srey. “They still watching us?”

Srey, despite Eva asking her not to, gave a slight bow before speaking. “It stopped as soon as you said not to say anything secret. It hasn’t started up again. I can point out roughly where the watching was happening, if you want.”

It might be tempting to chase this person down, but so long as they couldn’t block their sight, it would be almost impossible. They would leave and potentially set up traps on their way out before Eva could make it to them. Maybe something a lot more dangerous than whatever this emblem had been.

Since Srey couldn’t find them while they weren’t looking, it gave them plenty of opportunity to hide or rest. They would only be found when they were ready to be found. Probably with a whole lot more traps as well.

In the end, Eva shook her head. “No. But when we get back to school, make sure you go around and let every other demon know that they could be under surveillance at any moment by demon hunters.”

“Me?” Whatever reverence Srey had for Eva was out the window in an instant. He backed up, looking disgusted. “Most of them should already know. We did kill a few groups already. I don’t see why I–”

“Before you all came here, there was another demon around Brakket. Don’t know if you know him, but he went by Zagan.”

Srey drew in a sharp breath, giving Eva a reason to smile.

So he does know him.

Vektul, standing nearby, didn’t react in the slightest. Not even with a tilt of his head. Eva wasn’t entirely sure how to interpret that.

“A pair of demon hunters came into town. One fought Zagan all by himself while the other went on and killed half the demons around Brakket before finally being driven off.” Possibly dead, Eva didn’t bother adding. Her tale was scarier without that bit of information. If by some stroke of luck she had survived, it would be better for him to be wary anyway.

“You might notice that Zagan is no longer around. No one has resummoned him since he was defeated. The human walked away. I can almost guarantee that you guys haven’t fought against that group of demon hunters.”

Eva was absolutely confident that Zagan had been messing around and his hubris led to his defeat more than anything, but the end result was the same.

“So please, do as I ask. Perhaps relay that bit of information about Zagan as well.”

In the meantime, Eva had her own allies that needed to be informed about the situation.

He didn’t argue again, but he didn’t look very happy at being ordered around. Or maybe it was because he had found out that Zagan used to be around. Or that Zagan was defeated. Whatever the case, Eva didn’t much care.

Turning over to Juliana, Eva found her wand out in her hand with an amalgamation of metal hanging off the tip. The wand was odd. Normally Juliana used her rings almost exclusively. Though, thinking about it for a moment longer, it made some sense. The school required her to use a wand. She learned spells with it. Though Eva had no use for a focus, she knew that wands were easier to use than just about anything else.

The metal was all back together, but it wasn’t quite floating.

At least she wasn’t touching it with her hands or anything.

“Let’s get that to Zoe. Hopefully she has a secure place to hold it.” Her little pocket dimension would probably work if nothing else.

Every week that passed gave Eva just a little more paranoia. Nothing would happen one week so it had to happen the next. But nothing happened the next week either.

Her anti-scrying packets had an effect immediately after she had created them. Srey hadn’t complained about anybody watching them for a few days. All of a sudden, it had started up again. Whether they had been taking a break or found a way around it, Eva couldn’t say. Either way, she hadn’t found a way to actually block whatever was watching them a second time. She had given up for the time being. Without knowing how she was being spied upon, it was extremely difficult to come up with passive countermeasures.

Even a few thaumaturgical wards set up by Zoe hadn’t solved the problem.

For the time being, they had to take more active measures against anything they didn’t want to be revealed by being overheard. Namely by not discussing anything. Even writing things down could be dangerous.

As for the emblem, Zoe hadn’t been able to discover any magic on the metal. Traces were there, but whatever magic there was had been broken when the metal had broken. It was, however, the same metal that burned Eva when she touched it despite the different color. That only led credence to Eva’s belief that the demon hunters from before were still around. At least the knight of the two.

Juliana had added the small bit to her armor after being doubly sure of Zoe’s results. It probably wouldn’t be useful against demon hunters, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to stock up on just in case.

Though it might not be needed soon. None of the demons that Anderson had brought in were all that… objectionable. In fact, Eva got the impression that most of them were like Lucy in that they had never been summoned before. The way they reacted to things and people were just not quite right in comparison to most other demons that Eva had come across.

Apart from Srey, all of them were happy to be here.

“Did you sign up?”

Eva jumped out of her seat. Half of the cafeteria turned to glance at her as her knee hit the bottom of the table, causing plates and cutlery to jump along with her.

Shooting them a minor glare was enough to get everyone back to minding their own business. Or pretending to, at least. A few ears were still tilted in her direction.

She didn’t know why. Most of the time, she and her friends discussed matters of trivial importance. Nothing interesting. Especially so in the recent days with their watchers watching them.

“Don’t sneak up on me like that.”

“I thought you could see behind you?”

Turning to Shalise, Eva shook her head. “Only if I’m paying attention.”

“Then pay attention more. But you haven’t answered my question. Have you signed up yet?”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Eva said. “I really have no desire to be involved in some battle between schoolchildren.”

“You are a ‘schoolchildren.'”

“But I usually fight with people who are actually trying to kill me. Or at least people intending to cause me serious harm. I wouldn’t want to accidentally go overboard.”

Shalise huffed as she sat down. “Wouldn’t it be nice to do just a normal school activity without all the threat of imminent death or zombification?”

“Normal school activity?”

“Yeah. That’s what this is. I looked it up. Other schools do this kind of thing on a regular basis. Like football except for magical schools.”

“Football with demons.”

Crossing her arms, Shalise glared at Eva.

“That’s why they’re here.” Supposedly. “To help Brakket cheat at magical football.”

“But, they’re not going to do anything overt, are they? I mean, it’s still a secret.”

“Doubt it. I’m not planning on hiding myself.” Now that she actually had eyes, wearing a blindfold wasn’t comfortable or enticing. Gloves were too cramped and shoes were worse. “And some of them,” Eva said with a pointed glance towards Saija, “couldn’t hide among people if their existence depended on it. Even if she could, she wouldn’t shut up about it.”

The demon in question was seated among a gaggle of hangers-on. She was by far the most popular of demons. Even the people not pleased to be attending school with demons didn’t seem to object at her company.

And Catherine had already assured everyone that Saija was not using any sort of endearing powers from her succubus nature to gather her crowd.

Saija sat with the humans, talking and laughing. She didn’t just have people around her. She was popular. Any compliments paid towards her, especially towards her wings, would be met with obvious pride and a compliment in return.

Though a succubus, she shared a trait with Catherine. Neither acted as Eva would have expected succubi to act. While Catherine dressed provocatively, she held utter disdain for interpersonal connections. That included human contact as far as Eva could tell.

In contrast, Saija reveled in the people around her. The only time Eva had seen her without a smile had been at the very start of school, before she had met anyone. And yet, she had something of a fascination with clothing. So much so that she hadn’t worn the same thing twice.

Brakket Academy had a uniform. Though wearing it wasn’t enforced in the slightest, most students chose to wear it. Probably because of the nice material and self-cleaning aspects. Saija had done so on her first day.

Never since.

Where she got the clothes or who gave them to her, Eva couldn’t say. Though some articles of clothing may have been from her… Do those people count as her friends?

Even stranger, the bulkier the clothes, the better. Apparently. Coats, scarves, hats, and even earmuffs on one day. It was only the middle of October, just starting to get cold.

But not that cold.

All of her clothes had been modified with holes in the backs for her wings and tail. Two things that she had never put away.

Maybe she couldn’t.

Eva shook her head, glancing back to Shalise. “If it was supposed to be a secret, it won’t be for very long. Besides, weren’t half the demons going to be becoming bound familiars? I hope you didn’t sign up for that unless you want another demon in your head.”

Shalise backed up slightly, aghast and face drained of blood. “I don’t think– That’s not– Regular humans can participate too, right?”

“They can indeed, Miss Ward.”

Eva rolled her eyes before shifting to see over Shalise’s shoulder. “Mister Anderson,” she said in her least sarcastic tone of voice. “Welcome back. We… missed you.”

“Back?” he said as confusion twisted his face. “I haven’t gone anywhere.”

“We haven’t missed you either.”

Eva couldn’t say why she felt antagonistic towards Alexander Anderson. Something about him rubbed her the wrong way. He acted too professional. The way he spoke implied that he cared about the students around Brakket. And yet Eva doubted that was the case.

At least Martina hadn’t lied about it. At least not to Eva.

“Well, I’m glad to see you’ve still got a sense of humor. I hear rumors that you’ve been somewhat on edge lately.”

Maybe it is him who is spying on us. Eva quickly dismissed the thought. He was spying, or he had his demons spying, but he couldn’t be the only one. There were definitely demon hunters out there.

“I was just stopping by while looking for someone,” he said, glancing around the table.

“Jordan’s already gone ahead to class, if that’s who you’re looking for. He wanted to get a question or two in before his enchanting test starts.”

“Good for him. But I was actually looking for Juliana Rivas.”

Eva sat up straighter, narrowing her eyes slightly. A thousand possibilities for his reasons ran through her mind. Most involved her parents. Were they injured or in trouble? Or had they found out that Zagan wasn’t even on the mortal plane and were going to pull her out of school.

“Whatever you’re fearing, don’t,” Anderson said. He shook his head. “It isn’t anything bad. I assure you. I merely wished to discuss a few matters with her. Matters involving demons and the possibility of her becoming one of our dear friends’ host.”

“Oh,” Eva said with half a chuckle. Her sudden tension died almost immediately. “That. I doubt she’ll agree.”

“She had an interest in diablery before, did she not?”

“Yeah. It almost got her mother killed.”

“Ah, yes. The mess with Zagan. I was hoping we might look past that now.” He paused to look around again. “I thought I might ask, at the very least. Yet she isn’t here. Did she head to class early as well?”

“Actually, she is skipping school today. Sort of. I mean, she’s here. But she isn’t going to class. You’ll have to try tomorrow.”

“Skipping school? You’re admitting that to the dean?”

Eva shrugged. It wasn’t like the attendance records would have shown her here.

“She wanted to borrow Arachne. They should be out in the Infinite Courtyard.”

Eva would be out there as well, except she had a test today. She wasn’t sure why she bothered. School was there to prepare oneself for the future and she had no idea what she wanted to do after school ended.

Maybe she would be in Hell. Maybe she could join the Royal Guild of Mage-Knights. At the very least, that would keep her appraised of any bounties that might get put on her head.

For the moment, she figured she might as well learn. Especially golemancy. Poor Basila was still not quite her usual self.

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Author’s Note: The first chapter of a new story tentatively titled Analyst is over on my preview site. Meant to have it up a few weeks ago, but delayed because I’m not sure that I write military tactical type things very well. Much less happy with it than I am with Demi-God, but I also wanted to post something. Bigger notes at the bottom of the chapter over there.